March 11, 2004 – After being tossed around from one Legislature to the next to yet the next after that, Sen. Lorraine Berry's "tourism authority" bill finally emerged victorious Thursday afternoon on the Senate floor — to face an uncertain fate when it arrives on the governor's desk.
But what the lawmakers have approved is not a Tourism Authority. It's a government-dominated Tourism Board stripped of much of its original clout. And the Tourism Department, which would have been eliminated under the original bill, remains intact.
The legislation would replace the existing Commerce Publication Revolving Fund and the Tourism Advertising and Revolving Fund. with a Tourism Trust Fund. Revenues for the new fund would come from the existing hotel room and time-share tax, plus the sale of promotional products, ATM fees, 5 percent of casino gross receipts, an entertainment and amusement tax and a telephone long-distance surtax, along with any money appropriated by the Legislature and any gifts the fund might receive.
In order to get something passed which she feels will help the territory get back on the tourism map, Berry admittedly watered down her initial legislation in an effort to appease Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. (See "Tourism Authority makeovers don't pass 'no'".)
In a release issued Thursday evening, Turnbull said he would wait to see what exactly is in the bill "before I decide what action is forthcoming."
The release stated: "The governor noted he recently met with proponents of the bill, and there was an agreement at the conclusion of the meeting for both sides to continue to meet to hammer out an acceptable agreement. These meetings never occurred."
Fourteen month ago, in his 2003 State of the Territory address, the governor said he advocated "the establishment of a Tourism Authority in which all stakeholders are equally and fairly represented." However, he has zealously guarded his options about just who those "stakeholders" should be. And he has been adamantly protective of Tourism Department as currently constituted.
Despite strong support from her colleagues — the bill has nine co-sponsors — Berry had a tough time getting the measure onto the floor. It had been on the agenda for two late 2003 sessions but was pre-empted at the last minute for what were advanced as more pressing matters.
In a final plea during Thursday's deliberations, Berry told her colleagues: "We have lowered our sights; we have compromised. However, we cannot depend on the skills of a single individual, regardless of how qualified. Frankly, it is being unrealistic."
She continued: "Every Caribbean society, even Cuba, is seeking to improve with a public-private authority to guide them. This is true virtually of all island-oriented organizations. For example, Hawaii in 1998 found the only way to get itself out of the economic stagnation it was in was the creation of a tourism board very similar to the proposal before this body now."
Berry faced strong criticism up to the end.
"I am not convinced the bill addresses the needs of St. Croix," Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said. "Right now, in my opinion, this bill is like a song without music. While I enjoy listening to a good song, I will never dance without music. There's some convincing to be done."
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd asked what would become of the Tourism commission if the measure becomes law. "That's my problem with the whole setup," he said. "What would the Tourism commissioner be doing for $85,000 a year? If the board makes all the decisions, we don't have a need for a commissioner. I don't think that's the way to go."
Berry said the commissioner would still be the commissioner and would sit in an ex-officio capacity on the board, and that the Tourism Department would be responsible for administrative functions.
The department would retain day-to-day functions including collecting industry data, working with local businesses and running the visitor bureaus. The board, comprising 13 voting members plus the commissioner, would be established as an independent instrumentality of the government. It would handle marketing, advertising and promotion activities. Six of the 13 members would be private sector representatives and seven would be government officials.
Under an executive director, the board would develop a Comprehensive Tourism Promotion Plan to cover a period of more than five years. It would include development of a financial operating plan, competitive market analysis, and several other elements deemed crucial to tourism marketing.
The voting public-sector members would comprise the chief executives of the Economic Development Authority, The West Indian Co. and the Port Authority; and four additional government officials.
The private-sector members would represent each of the territory's Chambers of Commerce, each of its Hotel and Tourism Associations, Frederiksted economic interests, and the taxi industry. The taxi seat would rotate between the two districts, with the first member to come from St. Croix.
According to the Thursday Government House release, the administration received copies of proposed amendments to the bill that had been tabled at Berry's request last December "shortly before the Senate reconvened on Thursday, and much too late for proper review by [the governor's] legal counsel and other members of his review team."
"At no time did I commit to approving the bill to any senator," Turnbull said in the release. "In fact, I called several senators during the debate to voice my concerns with the limited time for proper review of the proposed amendments."
Passage of the bill came on a vote of 8 to 4. Voting for the measure were Sens. Berry, Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Louis Hill, David Jones, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell. Voting against it were Sens. Jn Baptiste, Liburd, Usie Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. Sen. Douglas Canton Jr. abstained. Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Emmett Hansen II were excused.
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