News Column

Senators object to governor's finger-pointing after missing budget deadline for fourth year in a row

May 31, 2014

By Aldeth Lewin, The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas



May 31--ST. THOMAS -- V.I. legislators are taking exception to Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s characterization that the Fiscal Year 2015 budget was late because senators had not addressed the $40 million 2014 budget shortfall and hadn't provided funds for a software upgrade.

Senate Finance Committee chair Sen. Clifford Graham said Friday that he is tired of the governor laying blame at the feet of the Senate.

"The long and short of it is, the Legislature is here to work together with the executive branch for the betterment of the people of the Virgin Islands," Graham said.

He noted that the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal is based on projected revenues to be collected in FY 2015, and that 2014 deficits must be dealt with separately.

"It has to be addressed," Graham said. "But the one has nothing to do with the other."

He said the only way a budget shortfall in FY 2014 would affect the next year's budget is if a loan had to be taken out to cover the shortfall, and the repayment of such a loan had to be factored into the following fiscal year.

Seeking a working capital loan is not being considered by the Senate at this time, according to Graham.

There are measures that will address at least part of the deficit coming soon, Graham said.

The other issue hampering the timely budget submittal is the enterprise resource planning system, according to deJongh.

"The lack of upgrades to our ERP System has created substantial difficulties and delays in our ability to input a new fiscal year budget into the system. We anticipate that the Legislature will shortly approve the requested funding for these critical updates," he said.

Malone said this claim is unacceptable.

"All it means is that you can't generate a report, it doesn't mean you don't know how much money you have in the bank," Malone said. "That is unacceptable."

Malone said the Senate supports upgrades to the ERP system, but that it is a low priority compared to other government services that need to be funded.

"We support it you know, we just don't think that you need the money for that right now," Malone said. "Why can't we use that money for other things that are needed for the people?"

"They can wait until Oct. 1, it's not going to be the end of the world," Malone said.

Under V.I. Code, the governor must submit a balanced budget to the Legislature by May 30.

In a letter deJongh sent to Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone on Thursday, he said expects the budget proposal to reach the Senate by June 16.

This is the fourth year in a row that the budget has been late.

The budget gap for the current fiscal year has been a problem since the budget was put in place in October. It started as a $70 million shortfall, but the receipt of rum cover-over revenues from the federal government closed the gap to about $40 million.

Despite many public hearings with the governor's financial team, and closed-door meetings between senators and the governor, the Legislature has not passed any legislation to eliminate the current budget deficit.

Budget process

The late submission puts pressure on the Senate, which must hold hearings, make changes and pass the budget before the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Graham had already scheduled an overview of the budget for June 12 and the first hearing on June 17. He issued a revised schedule Friday placing the overview on June 17, and pushing the first few hearings back about a week.

The annual budget hearings help senators learn more about budget requests of each government department and agency that receives funding under the governor's proposal.

Graham said the departments and agencies that receive General Fund budget appropriations will be scheduled during the summer months and the autonomous agencies will be heard in September.

In order to be efficient, he is pairing larger agencies with smaller ones so that the budget hearing days are not overly long.

"I think the schedule should flow better," he said.

At the end of the summer, once budget hearings are complete, the majority caucus will go into budget mark-up and make changes to the governor's proposal. Then, the Senate's final version is considered and approved through the Finance Committee, the Rules and Judiciary Committee and the full body before going to the governor for his signature.

The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

___

(c)2014 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)

Visit The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR) at www.virginislandsdailynews.com

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Source: Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas)


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