After a full day of listening to testimony and arguing about details, the Virgin Islands Senate on Tuesday decided it wanted more time to hash over a government request to use bonds to pay for new police cars, energy saving work in the public schools and ongoing capital projects that need extra cash to be completed.
By a 7-5 vote, the Senate sent two bonding bills to the Finance Committee for further amendment and consideration.
Senators voted to "special order" the bills onto the agenda, a parliamentary move that allows the bills to come directly to the full Senate, bypassing the committee hearings. But after spending the day listening to testimony and combing over the details, they then sent the measures to the Finance Committee.
Voting to send the bills to committee were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Ronald Russell, Sammuel Sanes, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Celestino White and Janette Millin-Young. Voting nay were Sens. Neville James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Usie Richards. Sens. Craig Barshinger, Louis Patrick Hill and Alvin Williams were absent.
The lawmakers also passed Bill 29-0363, adopting certain parts of the territory’s Code of Federal Regulations to be in compliance with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Act. The bill was sponsored by Russell at the request of the governor. Voting to approve the bill were Dowe, Malone, Richards, Russell, Sanes, Sprauve and Millin-Young. Voting nay were Hansen, Nelson, Rivera-O’Reilly and White. James abstained. Barshinger, Hill and Williams were absent.
Bill 29-0385 would provide $27.5 million for capital projects currently under way but not completed and for 161 police cars, which would be purchased on contract through Metro Motors. Bill 29-0387 would provide "up to" $35 million for energy projects in the public schools.
Public Works Commissioner Darryl Small presented a list of projects that would be completed by the funding, including:
– $4.5 million for phase II and III of the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School track facility on St. Thomas. When complete the track facility will meet the standards for international competition;
– 1.5 million for the Charlotte Amalie High School track on St. Thomas;
– $2.2 million to complete the Education Complex track on St. Croix;
– $1.8 million to complete the Central High School track on St. Croix;
– $2 million for repairs to Fort Christian;
– $2 million to the Tutu Park library project;
– and $1.5 million for reconstruction of the Public Works garage in Sub Base, St. Thomas.
Rivera-O’Reilly expressed dismay, saying there are already more than $40 million in funds appropriated and on the books for various projects that haven’t been used yet.
"We have money sitting there for projects that are not creating the jobs you say will stimulate the economy," she said. "We have a lot of things in the hopper and things have either not commenced or they have commenced but not been finished."
"Are we biting off more than we can actually chew?" O’Reilly wondered.
Smalls defended the projects, saying they can all be accomplished, but have to be done in phases.
Nelson argued against further capital funding projects when the government might have to lay off more workers in the near future. He also claimed that the estimated cost for the fleet of police cars was "not real.”
“It’s ballooned," Nelson said, adding that he doesn’t trust the governor. He said the government is willing to pay too much interest on the bonds, saying vehemently that investors should be given the chance to compete for the government’s business.
"We’re being played like a durn piano," he grumbled.
In a statement issued 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. John deJongh Jr. was sharply critical of the Legislature’s decision to send the two bills to committee.
"Today we witnessed inaction on bills that would help fund key capital projects and move them towards completion while at the same time providing jobs and spurring much needed economic growth in our financially-challenged territory," deJongh said.
Recalling the elections that are coming up in November, the governor said, “This Senate has once again today lost an opportunity to propel our territory forward and they will now have to explain themselves to the people of the Virgin Islands.”