USVI Controversy Placed Before U.S. Senate Committee

Hardbeatnews, SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Fri. Mar. 31, 2006: U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, (R-NM), who chairs the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, has scheduled hearings over a controversial bill sponsored by USVI Congressional Delegate Donna Christensen, (D-VI), to establish a chief financial officer (CFO) to oversee the finances of the USVI.

The bill is opposed by U.S.V.I Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, a Democrat like Christensen. The Committee has oversight of the territories including the USVI and earlier this month it had hearings on the bill which passed the House during the last term of Congress. But time ran out before the U.S. Senate could act upon it. Both Turnbull and Christensen appeared at the hearing and debated the legislation.

The governor opposes it arguing that it is a step backward
in self government while the delegate is convinced that the territory has lost control over its financial situation.

Pointing to the improved financial standing of the USVI, Turnbull warned that the CFO bill would limit local government. “The financial operation of the USVI does not warrant limiting representative local government and the transfer of essential budgetary functions to an unelected bureaucrat,” said Turnbull.

Christensen, however, insists her bill would not limit or take over local government functions. As proposed, the governor would nominate the CFO from a pool of nominees suggested by local and community leaders. The nominee would require
confirmation by the USVI Senate and serve for a term of five years.

“The selection of budget priorities remains in the hands of the governor,” said Christensen. “This bill creates more accountability rather than less.”

The delegate has been trying to establish a territorial CFO through federal legislation since 2003.

Domenici has requested written statements from the two highest elected officials in the USVI so that his committee members “can gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. territories’ economies, the challenges they face and the actions they are taking.”

The controversy playing out in Washington pits the two most powerful elected USVI officials, both Democrats, against one another. Turnbull is in his second term as governor and is term limited meaning he will not be a candidate to succeed himself. Christensen is in her fifth term in the House and has acquired increasing clout because of her seniority.

There is a Republican Party in the USVI but it is only one-tenth of the size of the Democratic Party but has considerable influence in Washington because of its ties with the Bush administration.

The legislation comes at a time that the federal government is moving to monitor more closely the $35 million in federal grants the USVI receives annually. The U.S. Department of Education announced last year that Washington would no longer disburse grants to the local department, citing its inability to properly manage money.

In 2003 the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development took over control of the USVI Housing Authority because of its financial mismanagement.

Christensen is adamant in her continued support for her bill. “It is very clear that the people of the USVI recognize the need for more accountability, transparency and efficiency in the management of federal and local funding,” she said.

The CFO legislation is expected to be one of the key campaign issues in the next gubernatorial elections. Since the office of governor is term limited, one thing is certain. Turnbull cannot be the candidate and the post is up for grabs. It is expected to be quite a contest with more than half a dozen candidates on the horizon. But long time observers of USVI elections recall that in 2002 Turnbull won reelection against six other candidates without a runoff mainly because of his grip on the government bureaucracy.

Christensen has indicated she will not be a candidate for governor in the next elections and is expected to remain in Washington as Delegate secure in her seniority. In 2002 she garnered 77 percent of the votes, which was widely viewed as apparent support for her CFO legislation. Her opponent, who strongly opposed her CFO bill, got only 23 percent. –