May 7, 2003 – Writing a constitution or deciding on status will do nothing to help the territory out of its present financial difficulties, the president of the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands said on Wednesday at a Senate Government Operations Committee hearing on St. Thomas.
Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine and several other community members were on hand to testify on a bill calling for the territory to convene a 5th Constitutional Convention next year. "The cause of our present situation is our lack of will and willingness to do things differently," she said.
A constitution is doomed to failure until the territory is willing to "think outside the box," she said.
With little public interest so far, in the constitutional issue, Ballentine said residents are more concerned about whether they are going to get paid than about their political status.
The bill does not provide enough time for the delegates to do the job or enough money to adequately fund the process, several others testifying at the hearing agreed. The bill gives delegates four months — from March 22 to July 27, 2004, to develop a constitution. It also allots $100,000 for the process.
"The time frame is too compressed," said Paul Leary, a retired University of the Virgin Islands professor who has long studied the issue. He said a constitutional process would take at least a year and a half, but suggested that the delegates should decide when they are done. Additionally, he said a well-thought-out budget should determine the funding level rather than using an arbitrary figure determined by the Legislature.
"The $100,000 is seed money," countered Senate President David Jones, who is the prime sponsor of the bill. He said the Legislature could appropriate more money or, echoing the sentiments of others, could ask the U.S. Interior Department to fund the process.
Later in the all day hearing, Jones said that the territory should spare no expense because the constitutional issue is "fundamental."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the committee chair, said he didn't foresee that the local government would have to come up with any money. "Funding a constitutional convention is not a priority locally," he said.
Leary suggested that a commission be appointed to decide how to approach the constitutional issue rather than going straight to a constitutional convention. "But there should be a popular vote to ensure popular support," he said.
Delegate Donna Christian Christensen and Edward Phillips, parliamentarian for the Association of Concerned Native Virgin Islanders, both suggested that the territory adopt the 1954 Organic Act as its constitution with the provision that the territory could then amend it.
Christensen, who sent her comments in a letter, said this would avoid the gridlock that occurred in previous attempts to forge a constitution.
The 4th Constitutional Convention was in 1980. It produced a document that was acceptable to the governor, the president and Congress but that was rejected by voters.
Leary said previous versions failed because voters got hung up on the definition of "native Virgin Islander" and the issue of self-government for each island. He suggested that to avoid the problems with a future constitution, voters be allowed to say yes or no to each provision.
The bill calls for 13 delegates from each district plus four elected at large, two from each district.
Leary said that because two of the 13 from the St. Thomas/St. John District must come from St. John, St. Thomas will not have adequate representation. He also noted that the three-year residency requirement specified for serving as a delegate might be a sticking point for some people.
Sen. Lorraine Berry suggested, and many others agreed, that the issues of the territory's relationship with the federal government and a constitution could be addressed simultaneously. Others called for voters to also decide on the territory's status.
However, Jones noted that the 1993 vote on status was inconclusive since not enough people voted for any of the choices. "The status has been chosen. It's the status quo," he said.
That status is unincorporated territory.
Malone said the committee would next take up the constitutional convention issue at a meeting in St. Croix at a date to be announced.
In other matters, the Government Operations Committee also took up a bill to create a comprehensive way to deal with bicycles, skateboards and other non-motorized conveyances. The bill also mandates the use of helmets.
After agreeing that the bill needed some work, Berry, its sponsor, agreed to hold it in committee until amendments can be written.
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