The V.I. Legislature voted in full session during Wednesday to temporarily hold a dozen of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s cabinet nominees to pressure Mapp into addressing, or possibly reversing, large pay increases for four of the nominees.
Each senator in turn said they supported all the nominees, regarded all of them as highly qualified, and planned to ultimately vote for them. Senate President Neville James also emphasized that all the nominees are already in place and government operations should not be affected at all.
When the cabinet nominees appeared before the Rules and Judiciary Committee for their initial hearing, senators asked them about their pay relative to their predecessors. Four of the 12 who have appeared before the committee so far said they negotiated substantial increases over their predecessor’s salaries. Many of the senators, including Senate President Neville James, said at the time they found it problematic when the governor was also saying the territory faced a massive budget shortfall.
When acting Finance Commissioner Valdamier Collens appeared before Rules, it came out he was to be paid $125,000 – about $28,000 more than his immediate predecessor, Angel Dawson.
"You do understand the public has a problem processing the governor saying we don’t have any money and on the other hand seeing you get a $25,000 raise, not that you aren’t worth it," James said at the time. (See Related Links below)
Senator after senator raised concerns about the salaries when the nominations were being debated by the full Legislature in session Wednesday.
"Senators are not upset at the nominees, said Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-St. Croix). But, he added, senators are concerned by the pay levels and the rationale and system by which they were decided.
"There is no methodology that I see," Vialet said. "Is it by size of department? Or importance? I am trying to figure out what is the methodology for the raises."
Sen. Clifford Graham said he understood the salaries were likely incentives to come on board, but that instead of raises, they should reward success afterwards.
"I believe by doing that, you will have commissioners diligently looking at ways to turn this crisis around," Graham said. He also said he turned down a raise in his government career before becoming senator "and that is the message we need to send."
Sen. Myron Jackson and Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the majority leader, both said they were hearing from government workers angry about the rate of pay.
"We … have to be cognizant of the individuals working for the government who also have two or three jobs to make ends meet and have worked for years without a pay increase," Sanes said. "These are the individuals who call us every day."
While it "presents a tough decision," it is not a reflection on the candidates, who "shine," Sanes said.
James said Wednesday he had "a problem with the contradiction."
"We are told we are on the brink of financial collapse. And when you give out raises while predicting financial collapse, you are contradicting yourself," he said.
James said that in the end, the governor had the authority to negotiate salaries with his cabinet and the Legislature would ultimately approve the nominees, but by temporarily holding off on the vote, they hoped to get a response from the administration. Later in the day James said the vote "had reverberations because it appears we will meet with some important people soon. … We got the immediate result that we didn’t get in the last 75 to 80 days."
James asked for a motion to postpone the vote on the nominees and Sanes made the motion. Thirteen senators voted yes, with Sens. Kenneth Gittens and Clifford Graham voting no.
Mapp met with senators after the session to discuss the issue.
“This meeting was a positive, productive and progressive meeting. I received a good shellacking from the members of the Legislature for our miscommunications with each other," Mapp said in a statement issued late Wednesday.
"Senate President James and I have agreed to communicate in a more traditional manner going forward, as texting and emailing each other hasn’t worked.”
The senators and Mapp agreed to engage in discussions on a more regular basis and Mapp ended the meeting by asking each of the Senators to vote in support of his nominees.
“It was a good and productive discussion and I look forward to more regular meetings with members of the 31st Legislature,” Mapp said.