Dec. 17, 2003 – In one of its last session of the year, and certainly the most raucous, the 25th Legislature acted on a number of critical bills on Wednesday, provoking much debate and proving beyond doubt that politics does, indeed, make strange bedfellows.
The lawmakers approved the creation of a Waste Management Authority; removed from the agenda a bill to amend the Casino and Resort Act of 1995 paving the way for Carambola Resort to qualify automatically for a casino license; and, on a motion by its sponsor, Sen Lorraine Berry, held a bill creating a Tourism Board for amendments from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
After the affirmative vote on the Waste Management Authority, Sonya Nelthropp, Public Works senior manager for federal compliance, was in tears. Nelthropp has worked to develop the authority for the past four years, and closely with Sen. Louis Hill, the bill's sponsor, for the last year. While not in tears, Hill was equally jubilant at the bill's passage, which came after some pretty tough sledding, with vociferous objections from several colleagues.
"I think it's a good day for the people of the Virgin Islands," Hill said later Wednesday. "This is something the community deserves. I'm grateful for the senators who voted for the issue. I hope the governor will sign it and we can move into a new era."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been demanding since the 1980s that the territory deal with its waste management system deficiencies, and imposing sanctions when it failed to meet deadlines for doing so. During his 11 years on the federal bench, District Judge Thomas K. Moore has issued repeated orders of his own, including ordering Gov. Charles W. Turnbull into his courtroom in 2001 to say why he should not be held in contempt for "continued and flagrant failure" to comply with a 1983 consent decree between the U.S. Justice Department and the V.I. government calling for the Public Works Department to fix St. Croix's antiquated and dysfunctional sewage system.
In an impassioned plea earlier in Wednesday's session, Hill had told his colleagues: "The EPA strongly supports this; the federal court system under Judge Moore supports it; the governor was the one who got the ball rolling. I don't know why some of my colleagues have made it into a contentious issue. Clearly if we look at this in a logical fashion, anyone can see it makes sense. People argue for different reasons, and I didn't hear any real good reasons."
Minority leader Usie Richards tried to get the bill removed from the agenda. When that effort failed, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg motioned to get the bill sent back to Hill's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, a move which also failed.
The measure passed on a vote of 9-6. Voting in favor were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Hill, David Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell. Voting against were Berry, Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Richards and Celestino A. White Sr.
The senators voted to remove the casino act amendment bill from the agenda after they had spent hours discussing it. The action came after Yvonne Tharpes, legislative legal counsel, issued an opinion finding the existing legislation so fraught with faults as to disqualify it entirely, and rendering the bill in its present form meaningless.
During their morning deliberations, the senators voted to invite the chair of the Casino Control Commission, Eileen Petersen, to testify on the casino bill in the afternoon. She had not been invited to participate in committee hearings on the measure. (See "Senate asks casino panel chair to testify on bill".)
The 1995 legislation provided for a hotel to qualify automatically for a casino license if it had at least 150 rooms and a convention or banquet center and if the V.I. government had held at least a 25 percent interest in the property since Jan. 13, 1995. The proposed amendment would eliminate the 1995 cutoff, opening up the prospect of automatic qualification for any hotel with the cited facilities which is at least one-quarter owned by the government.
Testifying on the measure along with Petersen in the afternoon were Joe Sinicrope, managing partner of JS Carambola, the new Carambola Resort owner; Nathan Simmonds, director of the governor's Office of Fiscal and Economic Recovery Implementation; and Attorney General Iver Stridiron.
Petersen said she would approve of a change in the language in the bill to delete the phrase "shall automatically qualify and receive a casino license"and insert "may receive a casino license if qualified pursuant to the licensing requirements of this act."
The Senate also approved a resolution condemning the introduction of legislation in Congress by Delegate Donna M. Christensen to create the position of chief financial officer for the territory for five years. The resolution, special ordered to the floor by Sen. Emmett Hansen II, is to be forwarded to Christensen, President Bush, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and all other members of Congress.
The Legislature was still in session after 10 p.m. A full account of its deliberations will be published in the Source on Thursday.
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