The V.I. Legislature took time out from passing budget bills filled with severe budget cuts Friday to give away 10 acres of government land on St. Croix to American Legion Post 102 and let it use a government building in Peter’s Rest rent-free indefinitely. It also created a new per diem payment to the Youth Legislative Council.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, would convey a 9.9 acre parcel at Plot No. 184 Estate Anna’s Hope, to the Enrique Romero Nieves American Legion Post 102, for a new clubhouse. It also lets it "occupy through a use permit one of the buildings located at Parcel No. 1 Peter’s Rest … until it has completed construction of its permanent facility … ." [Bill 30-0499]
In April, the Legislature voted to appropriate $300,000 of taxpayer money as a gift to that veterans’ fraternity to help it build the private clubhouse in question. That measure, like this one, skipped the usual committee process and was special ordered and approved during session. (See Related Links Below)
Senators were very supportive of the measure, using the word "veteran" often. One of the 15 senators, Sen. Tregenza Roach, briefly raised a concern about the lack of notice, time and information, before joining most of his colleagues voting in favor.
"As with many of these special orders, I wish we had more time. I don’t know where this land is," Roach said, before adding, "I support veterans and I will be guided by my St. Croix colleagues."
"I am a member of Post 102 and I hope all 14 senators present today will support this bill and support veterans, " Sen. Sammuel Sanes said.
Voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Sanes, Hansen, Donald Cole, Kenneth Gittens, Clifford Graham, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Clarence Payne and Janette Millin Young. Sen. Diane Capehart was absent. Sen. Craig Barshinger abstained.
The Legislature also approved legislation, sponsored by Nelson, to allow members of the Youth Legislative Counsel to be reimbursed for travel expenses and to give them a $75 per diem payment when they meet. The legislation to create per diem payments for the members was crafted as an amendment to the Legislature’s budget appropriation bill.
Several senators expressed frustration that the public believes the Legislature received a budget increase, because it increased its General Fund appropriation from $19 million last year to $21 million this year. (See Related Links Below)
"It isn’t actually a raise," Sen. Judi Buckley said. "It is for capital improvements in all our buildings.”
The Legislature approved by unanimous vote an amendment from Graham to change to Legislature’s appropriation to say $19 million is for operating expenses and $2 million is for unspecified capital projects.
Roach said there should be a budget hearing for the Legislature to clear up issues like this.
"The reason people don’t understand is that we don’t have a budget hearing for the Legislature," Roach said. "If we had one, we would show that we too operate in transparency.”
It was unclear if Roach meant the Legislature was currently transparent despite the lack of public discussion and information, or that it would become transparent if it revealed the details of its budget in the future. No budget breakdown was given beyond $19 million for operating expenses and precisely $2 million for capital expenses.
Another amendment from Graham says the chairs of the Finance and Rules committees, the two busiest committees, will receive an extra allotment "not to exceed" 1 percent of the Legislature’s operating budget. The amendment passed on majority/ minority lines, with Buckley, Hansen, Nelson, O’Reilly and Roach voting no. Barshinger and Capehart were absent, and the other eight senators voted yes.