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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, June 28, 2022
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SENATORS WEARING TOO MANY HATS

Having served in two Constitutional Conventions and five Legislatures, including being president of one of them, I have learned a few things about how our government operates.
The fundamental flaw in how our government is structured is that too much power is placed in the hands of too few people. Except for Nebraska, all states, as well as Puerto Rico, have a bicameral Legislature thereby diffusing the law-making power between two bodies. Here in the Virgin Islands, our unicameral Legislature can introduce a bill, pass it and send it to the governor for his signature within a matter of a few hours.
In all states, as well as in Puerto Rico, there are lower levels of government that carry out the functions of town governments, county governments, zoning boards, school boards, etc. Here in the Virgin Islands, all of those functions are concentrated in the hands of 15 Senators and one Governor. Although we have a Board of Education, they do not control either the budget or the administration of the schools as is the case in most other jurisdictions. The Senators wear so many hats that it is not surprising that they do not do a particularly good job at any of them. While Senators run around attending to functions that would be better left to municipal, town or county governments, major issues such as tax reform, IDC reform, time share regulation, criminal code reform, etc. go unattended as they are too time-consuming and do not yield as many votes as the more specific issues that more directly affect the voters. In addition to the above functions, Senators must also approve all leases involving government property, as well as confirm cabinet members, judges and members of the WAPA Board, Port Authority Board and about 50 other Boards and Commissions. Without the blessing of the Legislature, none of those people can legally serve for very long. Considering all of the above, at this time I do not believe that it would be prudent to either reduce the number of Senators or put them on a part time basis. But there are two other things that can be done now.
First, we can take away some of the powers of the Senators and the Governor. That will require another Constitutional Convention. It is a difficult process, and it will create a lot of argument and divisiveness in the community, but it must be done. We cannot expect the Congress to do this difficult job for us; we must do it ourselves. If the constitution transfers some of the functions of the Legislature to lower levels of government, then, and only then, can we reasonably talk about making the Legislature part time or reducing the number of Senators.
Second, we can demand that the Senators cut their $15 million budget by $4 million. As a former president of the Legislature, I can assure you that the Legislature can function quite well with $11 million. There is no reason for Senators to have such large personal staffs, nor does the central staff need to be as large as it is now. If they cannot do it some other way, then let the Senators cut back on their travel, cellular phones , other perks and their own salaries. If the Senators did what they are supposed to do, $65,000 is not an unreasonable salary. The combined salary of all the Senators is less than one million dollars—which is less than 7 percent of the present budget of the Legislature. Even cutting their salaries in half would only save less than half a million, provided that the budget of the Legislature was also cut in order to reflect that saving. Let us rather demand that they cut the budget of the Legislature by $4 million and let the next Legislature decide where they want to make the cuts. Perhaps they could transfer those savings to the Union Arbitration and Award Fund.
Bent Lawaetz now serves on the board of the West Indian Co. Ltd.

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Having served in two Constitutional Conventions and five Legislatures, including being president of one of them, I have learned a few things about how our government operates.
The fundamental flaw in how our government is structured is that too much power is placed in the hands of too few people. Except for Nebraska, all states, as well as Puerto Rico, have a bicameral Legislature thereby diffusing the law-making power between two bodies. Here in the Virgin Islands, our unicameral Legislature can introduce a bill, pass it and send it to the governor for his signature within a matter of a few hours.
In all states, as well as in Puerto Rico, there are lower levels of government that carry out the functions of town governments, county governments, zoning boards, school boards, etc. Here in the Virgin Islands, all of those functions are concentrated in the hands of 15 Senators and one Governor. Although we have a Board of Education, they do not control either the budget or the administration of the schools as is the case in most other jurisdictions. The Senators wear so many hats that it is not surprising that they do not do a particularly good job at any of them. While Senators run around attending to functions that would be better left to municipal, town or county governments, major issues such as tax reform, IDC reform, time share regulation, criminal code reform, etc. go unattended as they are too time-consuming and do not yield as many votes as the more specific issues that more directly affect the voters. In addition to the above functions, Senators must also approve all leases involving government property, as well as confirm cabinet members, judges and members of the WAPA Board, Port Authority Board and about 50 other Boards and Commissions. Without the blessing of the Legislature, none of those people can legally serve for very long. Considering all of the above, at this time I do not believe that it would be prudent to either reduce the number of Senators or put them on a part time basis. But there are two other things that can be done now.
First, we can take away some of the powers of the Senators and the Governor. That will require another Constitutional Convention. It is a difficult process, and it will create a lot of argument and divisiveness in the community, but it must be done. We cannot expect the Congress to do this difficult job for us; we must do it ourselves. If the constitution transfers some of the functions of the Legislature to lower levels of government, then, and only then, can we reasonably talk about making the Legislature part time or reducing the number of Senators.
Second, we can demand that the Senators cut their $15 million budget by $4 million. As a former president of the Legislature, I can assure you that the Legislature can function quite well with $11 million. There is no reason for Senators to have such large personal staffs, nor does the central staff need to be as large as it is now. If they cannot do it some other way, then let the Senators cut back on their travel, cellular phones , other perks and their own salaries. If the Senators did what they are supposed to do, $65,000 is not an unreasonable salary. The combined salary of all the Senators is less than one million dollars—which is less than 7 percent of the present budget of the Legislature. Even cutting their salaries in half would only save less than half a million, provided that the budget of the Legislature was also cut in order to reflect that saving. Let us rather demand that they cut the budget of the Legislature by $4 million and let the next Legislature decide where they want to make the cuts. Perhaps they could transfer those savings to the Union Arbitration and Award Fund.
Bent Lawaetz now serves on the board of the West Indian Co. Ltd.