Oct. 28, 2003 – In one of the shortest Senate sessions of the last few years, lawmakers unanimously approved an amendment to current unemployment legislation which will allow about 530 people to collect benefits checks that have been held up since the end of August.
The session, scheduled for 10 a.m., began about 10:30 and adjourned shortly after noon. Senate President David Jones told reporters before things got under way that it would be a short day because of looming budget issues the lawmakers are working on. He recently said he expected the Fiscal Year 2004 budget to reach the Senate floor in mid-November. The fiscal year began Oct. 1.
Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin said on Tuesday that the day's session would not have been needed at all if the Senate had consulted with him last May when writing the legislation to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull called the special session to amend the earlier legislation, which failed to take into account language in an earlier bill which said that "no additional benefits shall be paid after Aug. 30, 2003." The amendment should have specified that "no new claims shall by payable under the provisions of this section."
None of the senators objected to making the change on Tuesday, but there was some arguing over who was responsible for bringing the legislative error to light. Sen. Usie Richards, the minority bloc leader, and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, a minority senator who chairs the Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee, exchanged barbs with Jones throughout the session.
Four senators from the 10-member majority — Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell — joined the five minority senators — Carlton Dowe, Jn Baptiste, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. — in signing a petition asking Jones to call a special Senate session for last Friday to address the legislative error. Jones instead collaborated with the governor in calling the Tuesday session.
Jones said on Tuesday that he didn't call the session earlier as requested because he was trying to change the law by administrative means instead. When labor officials told him "there was no administrative remedy possible," he said on the Senate floor on Tuesday, "I asked the governor to call this session."
Benjamin said federal regulations required that the law be amended and that the checks not be sent out until the change was made. "We have to be very keen in what we do with local and federal mandates," he said.
Jones gave Benjamin five minutes to make his presentation on Tuesday. "It's a very simple matter. It's crystal clear what the issues are," the Labor commissioner said. "The language 'no additional benefits after Aug. 30' is the problem."
Jn Baptiste and Richards led the petition effort to get Jones to call the special session. "I did this out of frustration," Jn Baptiste said. "My office was getting calls about the delayed checks. We had to do something."
After listening to comments by Yvonne Tharpes, chief legislative legal counsel, quoting a letter from Benjamin about the Senate action needed to correct the problem, Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said he was confused. "I hope this is the right language," he said.
Benjamin assured him the legislation passed on Tuesday "will set the record straight." He added: "The unemployment checks will go out as soon as the governor signs the legislation."
Richards pressed the point of what happened with the request to have the session last Friday. Jones replied that "this issue was brought to my attention, and I immediately dealt with it." He also suggested that the minority might have used that session for purposes other than acting on the unemployment amendment.
Richards then told Jones: "I take great exception to the impression being made. Had it not been for our petition, there wouldn't have been a special session. We didn't want to add other amendments. We had no intention of doing that to you, Mr. President."
Then, although there had been no mention of such a move, Richards added: "I won't be involved in any overthrow of you. I would be your greatest defender."
Jones, with a smile, said, "Thank you. That's very nice to know."
Several senators commented that they considered the session a waste of time. "It could have been over in five minutes," said Donastorg, who called the unemployment benefits issue "a no-brainer."
In calling the special session last week, Turnbull also stated that he wanted the Senate to eliminate a $25 dependent's allowance in unemployment benefits which was approved in legislation extending the unemployment benefits. The measure also increased benefits to 80 per cent of the average weekly wage from the current 65 percent starting next January. With that increase, Turnbull said, the additional $25 allowance "will place a drain on the Unemployment Insurance Fund and jeopardize its solvency."
In the same 14-0 vote approving the language amendment, the Senate also repealed the dependent's allowance.
During discussion, in response to a query from Dowe, Benjamin said that the $25 would put an additional strain on the Labor Department budget. "I have no idea how much it will cost — it's brand new," he said. "We'd have to reorganize our unemployment unit." He added: "It will have a negative impact. I have talked to the governor, and it should be repealed."
Dowe said the latest available statistics show St. Croix with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate. He said many states are "extending the additional $25, which helps single parents."
All senators attended the session except for Sen. Emmett Hansen II, who was excused.
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