Senate Moving Toward Legislative Approval Of Federal Aid Projects

Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory during a January Senate session. (File photo by Alvin Burke Jr.)

On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill requiring the governor to submit plans for federal relief spending and requiring legislative approval for the executive branch and semi-autonomous agency spending of federal aid for capital projects in amounts greater than $5 million.

The measure, Bill 34-0073, now moves on to the Committee on Rules and the Judiciary.

Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory introduced the bill, saying it was crucial for the Legislature to exercise oversight and to ensure the funds are spent well.

“The intent of this bill is quite simple: Accountability, transparency, and to ensure that …” funds from the CARES Act, the Rescue Act and other federal aid funds are spent well, Frett-Gregory said.

“The people of the Virgin Islands will be better for it down the road and be able to look back and say, you know what, we made good decisions as relates to these federal dollars,” she said.

Frett-Gregory said people should go to the website of the National Council of State Legislatures to see what other states are doing and “see that what we are trying to do is not new or strange” and is less severe than many jurisdictions.

She said that “all across the United States, legislators are exercising the right to control spending” which is “one of our major responsibilities.”

The legislation, she said, does not impact the governor’s ability to declare an emergency and still allows spending of up to $5 million without the involvement of the Legislature. But she said the governor’s financial team testified in June that much of the funds still need to be spent.

While they still have time to spend the funds, “these are unprecedented times, and these are unprecedented amounts of funds coming to the territory,” she said.

“We have close to $600 million coming to the territory from the American Rescue Plan Act,” and neither she nor her colleagues can say at this moment what all the funds are for.

“Coming before the Legislature is coming before the people of the Virgin Islands, to explain how these funds are to be spent,” Frett-Gregory said.

Other senators expressed support.

“Many other states have done the same thing, to include in some instances putting in an oversight board,” Sen. Marvin Blyden said.

Frett-Gregory said the governor’s financial team was invited to testify Monday but no one was available. She said the bill would be heard again and amended as necessary in the Rules and Judiciary Committee.

Voting to send the bill (34-0073) out of committee were: Blyden, Frett-Gregory, Sens. Kurt Vialet, Javan James, Janelle Sarauw, Samuel CarriĆ³n and Dwayne DeGraff. All members were present and all voted in favor. Also present were Sens. Alma Francis Heyliger, Milton Potter, Novelle Francis Jr. and Carla Joseph.