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DeJongh Vetoes Streetlight Bill, Criticizes Lawmakers

Gov. John deJongh Jr. vetoed a measure that would have allowed the V.I. Water and Power Authority to charge customers for streetlights, while criticizing the Legislature for failing to make the hard decisions the territory and the economic times demand.

The veto was one among a host of actions the governor took Wednesday on the final measures that comprise the government’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget. DeJongh announced the actions in a telephone press conference Thursday afternoon.

In vetoing the legislation that would have removed the District Street Lighting Fund and allow WAPA to charge its customers for maintaining and installing streetlights in the territory, the governor said the measure should have gone through a more public review before being passed.

“While I agree that the Legislature must determine an effective way to fund the cost of street lighting, it would be just as appropriate to hear the community’s voice on this matter and hold hearings to obtain the necessary guidance from all those who would be impacted,” he said. "The potential revenue realized through this measure does not justify the lack of process and public input."

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DeJongh approved Bill 30-0463, which contained the streetlight amendment, but line-item vetoed a number of its sections. The bill provides appropriations to various entities in the executive branch and miscellaneous projects for FY15.

The sections of the bill that the governor approved will:
– Reaffirm that nongovernment entities must fulfill financial disclosure requirements to remain eligible for grant funding;
– Add electronic cigarettes to the list of items that may be assessed excise tax;
– Amend language contained in Act 7594 allowing members of the Board of Nurse
Licensure to serve until their successor is appointed. This provision would be applied retroactively to Jan, 1, 2014;
– Stop accrual of 30 percent of the stamp tax proceeds to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority from the General Fund for the FY15 budget except for $800,000 for the moderate income housing program;
– Authorize the Department of Property and Procurement to enter into a Services Rendered Contract on behalf of the Department of Human Services with the University of the Virgin Islands for $16,500;
– Amend the name of a feasibility study for the sports complex in Act 7625;
– Allow the V.I. Taxicab Commission to issue operator’s badges and identification cards for hire while still requiring that such operators be duly licensed to drive;
– Authorize the Commissioner of Property and Procurement to enter into Services Rendered Contracts on behalf of the Department of Human Services to pay Centurion Security Systems, Lutheran Social Services and VI Behavioral Services.

In approving Bill 30-0463, the largest of the budget bills for the operations of the central government, deJongh said he was compelled to point out that the appropriation to the Office of the Governor represents a new low, especially after the administration sought appropriation transfers to repair various governor’s offices to ensure a smooth transition for the incoming administration.

The Senate voted to increase its own budget, but slashed the operating budget of the Office of the Governor from $9 to $2 million for FY15.

“Why this budget reduction was limited solely to the Office of the Governor is puzzling since this body undergoes a similar transition on a more frequent basis. Furthermore, the disparity in treatment in this manner as compared to the selfish posture of the Legislature by increasing its own budget is antithetical to the proper and respectful functioning of co-equal branches of government," deJongh wrote in a letter to Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone.

DeJongh also noted the lawmakers had acted on the administrations proposals to bridge an anticipated $57 million deficit and had reduced the budgets of the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, both of which generate tax revenue that funds the government.

"The failure to act on many of my administration’s proposals submitted with the Fiscal Year 2015 Executive Budget to bridge the revenue gap, and passing decreased appropriations for the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Bureau of Corrections and the Virgin Islands Police Department, lacks a fundamental understanding of how we are expected to work collaboratively to further revenue generation as well as compliance in key areas concerning public safety.”

The governor applied line item vetoes to several sections of the budget bill, Bill 30-0463, including:
– A section addressing the eligibility of government personnel for public office and early voting. DeJongh said those sections must be vetoed as the general election is less than three weeks away. “As reflected in Act 7543, early voting is authorized and provided for and there is no justifiable reason to further amend this provision so close in time to Election Day”;
– A section that would have required an assessment of delinquent tax properties for use by government. “This amendment defeats the purpose of attachment and sale of delinquent tax properties, which is primarily to effect receipt of outstanding taxes. Though well-intentioned, the amendment would operate in a manner to take a citizen’s private property for public purposes without just compensation and adherence to the proper judicial process, which is wholly contrary to established legal principles”;
– A subsection of the bill’s section 15, which would have allowed senior citizens and people with disabilities to ride on VITRAN bus routes free of charge. DeJongh said the elimination of fees for people riding the VITRAN routes without identifying a compensating revenue source would be detrimental. “The financial impact of this amendment on VITRAN, which is inadequately funded given the scope of its operations, must be weighed against the limited resources of the Department of Public Works. The need for possible fee increases is undeniable, particularly when the necessary subsidies for maintaining the new buses and ferries will be required”;
– A section that sought to increase the appropriation during FY14 for the Certified Public Manager Program by $250,000. DeJongh said he endorsed the program and would be supportive of a funding measure for the current fiscal year as the current appropriation was done after lapsing of the fiscal year.

DeJongh also line-item vetoed a section of Bill 30-0463 that sought to prohibit outgoing administrations from encumbering more than 25 percent of the fiscal year budget during a transition year. In his letter to the Senate, deJongh wrote, “The continuous attempts by the Legislature, such as here, to manage and sit in the shoes of the administration, are lamentable. This amendment is not only a violation of separation of powers; it will adversely affect the continuity of government and place an undue hardship in the government’s ability to contract for essential services on behalf of the people.”

“The law requires that the funds for contracts be encumbered prior to entering into contracts,” he wrote. “Permitting agencies to encumber only sufficient funds for 25 percent of their contracts will prevent the executive branch from entering into contracts at all, thus crippling the normal functions of government. I will not stand by and permit your woefully misguided efforts to strike out at me to result in suffering for the people I was twice elected to represent.”

Other action taken by the governor Wednesday on legislation recently passed by the Senate included:
– Veto of Bill-0382 amending the V.I. Code pertaining to the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund. DeJongh explained, “Directing the proceeds from the sale of Hovensa as well as corporate taxes for the first 20 years to the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund at this juncture is premature given that we do not have the estimated value of the amount of such proceeds. Undeniably, St. Croix felt the largest impact from the closure of the oil refinery, however, the reality is that our Fiscal Year 2015 territorial expenses to revenues are at such a mismatch that all available resources are required to achieve a balance in Fiscal Year 2015 as well as upcoming fiscal years.
– Approval of Bill 30-0487, which exempts certain electronic equipment imported into the territory from customs duties. DeJongh noted that the original proposal he submitted with the 2015 budget was intended to exempt excises taxes as well, so that these specific items remain price competitive for our retailers with our prime Caribbean competitors as well as the U.S. retailers.
– The governor also approved Bill 30-0501, appropriating retro claim funding to the Departments of Health and Human Services, the Schneider Regional Medical Center, the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corporation, Frederiksted Health Care Inc. and for other health care and social welfare services, and signed into law Bill 30-0504, appropriating monies from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund.

DeJongh expressed disappointment that the Department of Human Services is the entity impacted the most by the Legislature’s diversion of the retro claim funds.

“What is most concerning of all is that the funds designated for mental health initiatives were completely diverted to fund increased health insurance premiums. I must press upon this body the urgency of this matter, as the territory is currently under a consent decree, near completion of a strategic plan as a member of a court-appointed commission, and may be ordered to report to a judge at any time to show progression and compliance, for which this funding is imperative.”

He continued later, “The territory has many concerns that could be addressed with additional funding, but the mental health of this community is a grave concern now and may be at jeopardy if sufficient funds are not replaced by the CIGNA overpayment. The distribution of funding sources between the Retro Claims and CIGNA overpayment anticipates that the CIGNA overpayment will total $6.2 million while the Division of Personnel has indicated that it is unable to confirm the availability of such funding, considering it will not be determined until the end of this calendar year and the completion of audited statements. I remain cautiously optimistic such funds will be realized.”

The governor ended his transmittal to the 30th Legislature commenting that “the proposals submitted for the Fiscal Year 2015 budget were a result of hard decisions that the Legislature was unable to make while still making choices inconsistent with the needs of the territory. I hope that the necessary amendments to mend the FY 2015 budget will be acted upon and timely passed in order to aid in the continued recovery of the territory’s economy.”

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