Where should the line be drawn on the Legislature funding itself? What are legitimate Legislative expenses? Unfortunately, there is no system of checks and balances to oversee the Legislature’s financial practices. There is no way to assure that the public’s interest is being served by the expenses created by the Legislature’s budget for itself.
At a time when the Virgin Islands are experiencing unprecedented unemployment and numerous business closures, AARP asks whether appropriating public money to fund things such as “the cost for relatives of new senators to travel for opening ceremonies” [i] are legitimate and practical. In an amendment by outgoing Senator Celestino White, the senator justified increasing the Legislature’s own budget by $850,000 to, among other things, replace a $2-million reduction in its 2013 budget.
The $2-million reduction reflects the Legislature’s portion of a government-wide budget reduction due to the extreme fiscal crisis currently experienced by the VI Government. This crisis began in late 2011 and brought about layoffs of over a thousand government employees between December of that year and January 2012. Budget reductions occurred in every government department during Fiscal Year 2012 and government officials believe the reductions need to continue into 2013.
To date, no other government division, agency or department has been reimbursed the loss of the funds cut from its 2012 or 2013 budgets. Instead all agencies were expected to do more with less until the Government can see its way through this extraordinary fiscal crisis. Despite the prevailing fiscal philosophy, senators felt it important to restore the cuts to help “the 30 th Legislature prepare and “get off to a good start” [ii].” Senator Carlton Dowe asserted, “Senators should not be scared to give themselves more money and should not ‘disrespect themselves’ by bending to public pressure.” [iii]
So, AARP asks: To whom does the Legislature answer? Is the public to be included in the public policy process? Who oversees whether the Legislature has overstepped its authority to fund themselves? Who assures the taxpayer that, in fact, money appropriated to the Legislative branch, actually goes to do “the people’s business”?
Case in point, when your nephew graduates from college or gets elected Mayor of a town stateside, who pays for you to attend the graduation or inauguration? Why should attending the VI Legislature’s swearing-in be held to a different standard? Is this expense a genuine “public expense”; particularly when teachers, firefighters, police and other government workers are being sent home?
While the example above focuses on just one glaring example of the need for oversight, the questions AARP Virgin Islands asks below are of far greater concern than just expenses related to a swearing-in. Some of our other concerns are:
- With the exception of this cost area, what other matters are to be paid for with these three-quarters of a million plus increase?
- Why, if this was a legitimate concern, was this matter dealt with as an amendment rather than a bill so that it could experience the full range of the Legislative committee process, including public hearings?
- Although the money is earmarked to come from a “working capital bond” authorized in January and already issued, is this money that is actually available or will this just create a way for the 29th Legislature to “legally” spend money it doesn’t have?
- What purposes will the 29th Legislature use its portion of the funding for – i.e., end of the year bonuses?
- How is it permissible for six (6) out of the eleven (11) voting on this measure to be out-going or non-accountable Legislators? (Those who voted on the measure included Senators Dowe, Richards, White, Hill, James, Malone, Nelson, O’Reilly, Sanes, Sprauve and Millen-Young. Those highlighted in bold type will not be returning to public office in 2013.)
[i] Kossler, Bill, Senate Increases Tobacco Excise Taxes in “Thanksgiving Bill”, Virgin Islands Source, November 21, 2012.
[iii] Lewin, Aldeth, Virgin Islands Daily News, Senators appropriate $850,000 for themselves Money is to cover budget shortfall and transition to next Legislature, November 26, 2012.