Day: September 22, 2016

SENATE APPROVES BUDGET BILLS AND DISCUSSES $430M BOND MEASURE

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ST.THOMAS—Members of the 31st Legislature rose out of recess Wednesday evening at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, and reconvened the Session where they approved 28 budget bills that were previously vetted; 25 were unanimously approved.

“It’s important that we all support these measures,” said Sen. Kurt A. Vialet. “It is going to provide the necessary funding for the government of the Virgin Islands.”

“We tried to make the point that we will be able to sustain the raises, that we’ll be able to keep people on the payroll and that we’ll be able to fill vacant positions, especially for those entities that provide monies to the government of the Virgin Islands,” he said.

“It would actually be more costly to us if we lose people from the government payroll, said Senate President James, in agreement. “In effect, what we’re doing is buying time.”

Sen. Jean A. Forde spoke to accountability and efficiency in government. “We cannot continue to do business as usual, “ he said. “We are in fact in a very critical situation. “We have got to make sure that the responsibility for government is of course to provide services for our people,” he said. “The agencies and departments which have that task before them, they have got to be equipped.”

Earlier that evening, during a Committee of the Whole meeting, lawmakers exhausted a discussion regarding Bill No. 31-0447 which, if approved, would authorize the issuance of bonds of approximately $430 million.

“Currently our situation is such that we have a $170 million deficit [that] we’re looking at for the next five years, if we do nothing,” said Sen. James.

Sen. Kenneth L. Gittens noted that the government’s downgraded rating by Moody’s Investors Service, to ‘BBB’ was done despite having an excellent payment history.

“We’ve never defaulted in our bond obligation,” he said. Valdamier Collens, Commissioner of the Department of Finance, also weighed in.

“The discussion today,” said Collens, “was the hope of signaling that we want to take a course of better fiscal stability and increasing economic growth throughout this territory. We are not Puerto Rico. We are completely different from Puerto Rico, but the truth is, if we don’t make the right decisions and if we don’t have a plan, we might not be too far off.” Nellon Bowry, Director of the Office of Management and Budget explained that it’s right and expected for lawmakers to question officials when they come to discuss borrowing, “it’s important to understand however, that borrowing is not necessarily bad,” he said. “It’s not necessarily something to avoid. It’s something you have to manage.”

Collens concurred.

“Debt is not bad,” he said. “Most state and local governments across the united States and other countries utilize debt. “We intend to manage the debt that we’re looking for much better than we have before because we do have  a plan.”

Bill No. 31-0447, will be considered when legislators resume the Legislative Session Thursday. Budget bills, including Bill Nos. 31-0404 through Bill No. 31-0416 and Bill No3. 31-0418 through 31-0423 were unanimously approved. Also unanimously approved were Bill Nos. 31-0425, 31-0427, 31-0428,31-0429, 31-0431 and 31-0438.

Also approved:

Bill No. 31-0424 (14 yes, 1 no: Nelson)

Bill No. 31-0426 (14 yes, 1 no: Nelson)

Bill No. 31-0430 (13 yes, 2 no: Nelson, Millin Young)

All members were present.

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FY2017 HEALTH INSURANCE PROPOSAL DISCUSSED DURING COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE; RATES WILL NOT RISE FOR ACTIVE EMPLOYEES IN 2017

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ST.THOMAS—The Committee of the Whole, chaired by Sen. Neville A. James, convened to receive testimony from officials regarding the Government Employees Renewal of Group Health, Life and Dental Insurance Wednesday, at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall.

“We have, as per the norm, a health insurance package before us. Today is September 21st. I want to say on the record that originally I was against holding this hearing because we have, on a consistent basis, asked the players that be to not submit the health insurance package in the waning days of the existing contract. Unfortunately, it continues to happen on a consistent basis,” he said.

“We owe it to our constituents and to the people of the Virgin Islands to at least hear from these key players who play a part in determining our health insurance package, going forward,” he added.

Beverly Joseph, Chair of the Government Employees Services Commission (GESC) Health Insurance Board of Trustees testified.

“Essentially we are looking at a ‘rate pass’ for Active Employees and for pre-Medicare Retirees (who are insured by Cigna) for FY2017 in all benefit areas, which means no increase to members of the government. For Medicare Retirees (those over the age of 65), who are covered by United HealthCare, we are looking at small rate increase of 2 1/2 % for the Medicare supplement portion only, and not effective until April 1, 2017.”

Sen. Janette Millin Young reiterated the “good news” for government employees.

“The rate pass translates into no increase to members,” she said. Sen. Millin Young also sought further clarity regarding the dollar amount and what it would translate to for retirees over the age of 65, who would be affected by the 2 1/2% increase.

Maureen Venzen, Chief of Group Health Insurance at the Division for Personnel, explained that depending on the coverage level for the retiree, as several plans are available, the increase would amount to between $2 to $3 per pay period.

At press time, no action had been taken on any measure though the committee engaged in a discussion with members of the governor’s financial team relative to Bill No. 31-0447, a measure to authorize the issuance of bonds, notes or other evidences of indebtedness to provide funding for capital projects and operating expenses of the Government of the Virgin Islands, not to exceed $292,000,000.

Later, the full body will rise out of committee of the Whole and resume the Legislative Session to act on both measures.

All members were present.

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