Virgin Islanders may soon be able to see budget and spending details for the Legislature, court system, University of the Virgin Islands, Water and Power Authority, Port Authority and other semi-autonomous agencies online if legislation approved in the Finance Committee is enacted into law.
A few weeks ago, Government House announced a new V.I. government’s transparency website with a much greater level of detail than previously available.
The internet database fulfills a campaign pledge of Gov. Albert Bryan and includes appropriations, expenditures, or use of all public funds and receipt of all federal and public funds; annual government expenditures or funding provided to any recipient; local funding for each government department and annual revenues.
The site’s public accessibility and new level of detail belatedly fulfill a mandate passed in 2012 requiring such a website by 2013.
The legislation, proposed by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory (D-STT) mandates the Legislature, courts and other agencies that provide the Legislature with budget information to put that data online on their own websites.
Acting Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal testified in support of including the additional agencies but suggested agencies put links to the main website on their websites instead of publishing the same information twice.
“Is there a funding source required to enact this bill?” Sen. Javan James (D-STX) asked.
“Not for the executive branch,” O’Neal said. The semi-autonomous agencies will have to provide their own information, she said.
Sen. Allison Degazon asked if funds should be set aside to help with transparency and O’Neal said “Yes, senator, I think that needs to be done.”
Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX) said many of the agencies affected, such as the Water and Power Authority and the territory’s two hospitals, have financial struggles of their own so he would like to know the overall cost for all the entities before passing a new mandate.
“This branch of government, we have passed so much good bills. But a lot of stuff the funding isn’t there so it doesn’t materialize,” Vialet said.
“I made a pledge that I am not going to support anything if it doesn’t have a funding source or will not be moving forward as per the language in the legislation,” he said, asking for a cost analysis.
Frett-Gregory said most or all of these entities already publish their financial information and the work is mostly sorting it to fit the same format as the rest of the government’s data.
“Remember, these are entities that are audited every year. So I hear your concerns. But on the work I have done, I don’t see that there will be any major costs associated with this legislation,” she said.
O’Neal also raised a concern about a passage requiring government salary information be provided without any identifying information. She said it could run afoul of V.I. law, pointing to a 1992 V.I. Territorial Court ruling in favor of the V.I. Daily News that directly prohibited the government from withholding the names, salaries, and job or position titles of public employees earning $ 40,000 or more a year.
Frett-Gregory said “we are a small community” and publishing salary information could stir up workplace contention.
Legislative legal counsel advised senators that the law required that salary information be available on request but did not require it to be on the website.
Senators voted without opposition to send the bill out of committee for more consideration and amendment. Voting to send it out were: Frett-Gregory, Degazon, James, Vialet and Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT). Sens. Oakland Benta (D-STX) and Athneil “Bobby” Thomas (D-STT) were absent.