Nov. 23, 2003 Senate President David Jones addressed two thorny issues Sunday. He said that he will withdraw his highly controversial tobacco amendment in Monday's full Senate session, and he gave short shrift to rumors that a move to oust him from his post is in the works.
The amendment, which would give tobacco importers a 90-percent excise-tax break, has been objected to by some of his colleagues, by taxpayers on radio talk shows and by Samuel Morch, AARP Virgin Islands president.
Morch wrote to Jones strenuously objecting to the amendment and voiced the association's opinion on the "Topp Talk" show on WVWI Radio Friday morning. (See Source Editorial, "Who exactly is served by a tobacco tax break?")
But, Jones said, the main reason he plans to withdraw the amendment is that he doesn't want to jeopardize the executive-budget bill. "I will take the amendment out, and send (the bill) to public hearings," he said.
The amendment is attached to the bill funding the entire executive branch budget — which also includes a $12 million appropriation to fund union contracts. Under "closed rule" proceedings, bills taken up on the Senate floor cannot be amended, only voted up or down. A vote against the tobacco tax break would be a vote against the union members and against all government-agency funding. Thus the political repercussions might be severe.
"I think misunderstanding and misinformation got out," Jones said. "It is not designed to promote smoking, but to stimulate sales for a visitor who comes here to shop. Tobacco traditionally has been the benchmark for determining whether a destination is pricey or you can get good bargains."
Jones was dismissive about another issue raised on Sen. Roosevelt David's Saturday morning radio show. David said there is a move afoot among some of his colleagues to oust Jones from the Senate presidency, which he described in some detail.
Jones said Sunday that he was aware of the rumors. "There's talk," he said. "There's always talk. It's nothing to report."
David said he had heard that the move came about because of a perceived lack of productivity and leadership on Jones' part. However, he said, "I'm told that the real reason is that Jones is from Dominica. It's very sad, indeed."
He said he understood that "the group has hired an outside counsel to draft a resolution." That would be a resolution restructuring the reorganization of the 25th Legislature.
"You wouldn't believe who is behind this," he said, without naming names, but with broad hints including mention of "a young man who was born in New York," a likely reference to minority leader Sen. Usie Richards. Both Richards and Sen. Emmett Hansen II were born in New York.
David took a beating from listeners from offering what many said was a "divisive view," pitting native-born Virgin Islanders against those not born here.
One caller said, "Don't do that, man. Don't be doing this thing. That's bad, man." Another caller said, "Cool out stop dividing us. Give us a break."
David said when Jones' name came up for Senate president, his birthplace was "at the heart of the issue." He brooked little tolerance for the callers' points of view. "I am closer to the source than you are," he told one. He said the move was "initiated in the minority." He also said the move "did not start with Berry."
Jones is in his fifth term in the Legislature. The 25th Legislature has seven members who were not born in the V. I., three of them in Jones' majority caucus Hansen, Sen. Louis Hill, also from Dominica, and Sen. Luther Renee from St. Lucia.
The 25th Senate majority bloc has appeared fragmented in recent meetings, with votes not necessarily divided along majority/minority lines. Two of its members Sens. Lorraine Berry and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg did not sign on to sponsor the Legislature's budget, and Berry voted against it in the Rules Committee. Donastorg is not a member of that committee.
The final day of the committee's budget meeting was filled with unusual liaisons between the two Senate blocs. Unrest between the two sides often became palpable during the day, as White joined forces with his old adversary Berry to support her "financial expertise." Though coating his remarks in humor, White has taken to extolling Berry's fiscal virtues in recent meetings.
The minority has made no bones about its dismay with the lack of progress the majority has shown toward completing the fiscal year 2004 budget, with its incessant delays. It has questioned the "progress" that majority speakers repeatedly refer to as a "work in progress."
"They don't know how to do it," White said after Thursday's delay. "What are they doing?"
Jones said he hoped the budget would be completed Monday, but he has set aside Tuesday if needed. The rest of the week is reserved for constituent meetings, except Thursday which is set aside for turkey.
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