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Restructured Senate Majority Lays Out Its Program

April 27, 2009 — Some of the players may have changed, but the Senate's majority caucus is still pushing ahead with its primary goal of throwing some real solutions at the myriad challenges facing the islands.
From introducing a bill to provide the government with some working capital in the absence of three years' worth of property-tax revenues, to building a comprehensive energy policy for the territory, Senate committees are going to work overtime for the next few weeks to make sure the next full session agenda is comprehensive, majority members said Monday at a press conference held on the grounds of the Legislature on St. Thomas.
At least a dozen bills have already been assigned to the various committees for consideration, Senate Majority Leader Neville James said. Monday's press conference comes on the heels of a major reorganization in Senate leadership, with Sen. Louis P. Hill taking over the Senate president's seat and Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe replacing Sen. Alvin L. Williams in the majority caucus. (See "Lawmakers Oust Donastorg as Senate President, Name Hill.")
Hill used Monday's press conference to outline his agenda, which centered on transparency and inclusion. Only with the minority and majority working together can the Legislature move ahead with a "common purpose, with common goals and aspirations," he said. Issues that affect the entire territory include high crime rates, economic troubles and a failing education system with high dropout rates, and senators should work together to set policy, he said.
"My hope is that that there will be less of a division between majority and minority, between the ICM senator and the Republican, and more embracing of solutions to these problems," Hill said. The lines of communication between the Senate, executive branch and the courts will also be opened, with the intention of keeping all stakeholders in the loop as policies are set, he added.
Meanwhile, an audit on the Legislature's finances and operations will be conducted, open sessions will be held and senators' doors will remain open to the public and the press, Hill said.
Taking over for Hill on the Committee on Appropriations and Budget is Dowe, who said Monday that one of the majority's top priorities is helping the government "bridge the gap" between its current multi-million-dollar budget shortfall and the next fiscal year. Senators met with the governor Monday morning to discuss the territory's financial picture and hash out some ways to stop the bleeding, he said.
There's a direct link between the budget shortfall and the government's inability to collect property taxes for the past three fiscal years, Dowe said. Senators will soon introduce a provision that would require residents to pay their last property-tax bill in full, while giving them five years to pay off the other two outstanding bills. In the interim, a line of credit would be set up to provide the government with some extra funds until the property-tax revenues come in, he explained.
In a news release Monday, deJongh said the budget deficit is fast approaching $188 million. The solution is collecting property taxes left unpaid since FY 2006 — meaning the government will, "for the next two years, be collecting for two yeas of back property taxes owed in each year," he said.
"These revenues will come just when we need them and will permit us to continue to maintain the level of government services needed and required by the people of the Virgin Islands," deJongh said.
The government also plans to draw on and borrow against the rum revenues expected to come in as a result of its agreement with Diageo PLC for the production of Captain Morgan rum on St. Croix.
The FY 2010 budget is expected to hit the Senate floor at the end of May, with budget hearings starting in mid June, Dowe said, adding that he would use his own form of performance-based budgeting to look at how the Senate will appropriate money to departments and agencies.
Also on the majority's agenda is the creation of a compensation commission responsible for setting the salaries of senators, governors, lieutenant governors, commissioners and judges. A recent tete-a-tete rumored to have taken place between the majority and Senate President Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg brought the infamous Act 6905 back into the spotlight, and majority members decided to tackle the issue head on, he explained.
"The reason the Legislature had to act on the bill was because there is currently no mechanism in place that allows for increases or decreases in salaries for senators, judges, commissioners and other top officials," he said. "This compensation commission is a really sound solution on the issue, especially for the members of the public that were dissatisfied with the salary increases."
Meanwhile, if a bill to repeal the act is introduced, senators will consider and vote on it, James said.
The Senate's next full sessions is scheduled for May 28 and 29.
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