June 24, 2004 – With unusual dispatch the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday approved five bills in record time — less than three hours — and with little debate.
The only discord in the day centered on two nominees to head government agencies whose nominations had been removed from the agenda. (See "Fire Service, Personnel Heads 'Confirmed' by Default".)
A bill to restrict the attorney general's sitting on the boards of autonomous and semi-autonomous agencies, approved by the Government Operations Committee a week ago with a concession to the man now in that office, was approved with more teeth.
The original legislation, sponsored by Sen. Louis Hill, prohibited the attorney general from serving on any such board. However, after Attorney General Iver Stridiron pleaded to remain on the Port Authority board, the bill was amended to accommodate his wishes. (See "Panel OKs Bill on Attorney General's Board Service".)
On Thursday Hill amended the bill to limit all commissioners and government agency directors to two seats on the boards of autonomous or semi-autonomous government instrumentalities or public corporations. The bill was unanimously approved.
Sen. Roosevelt David, Rules chair, said legislation should be drafted to remove the Tourism commissioner as chair the VIPA board and to allow the board to elect its own chair. Having the Tourism commissioner in that position presents a conflict of interest, he said.
It's a view that has been voiced by many in the community, especially since the VIPA board voted last year to raise airline landing and passenger fees — a move it rescinded eight months later.
Also Thursday, Sen. Emmett Hansen II saw his Homeownership Act of 2004 pass its final hurdle en route to the Senate floor. Hansen chairs the Senate Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee, which unanimously passed the bill on June 3. (See "Senate Committee Approves Affordable Homes Bill".)
The legislation calls for the construction of 2,500 homes in five years, at the rate of 500 per year — 350 on St. Croix, 100 on St. Thomas and 50 on St. John. They would sell for between $60,000 and $180,00, with the average price being $120,000. The homes would be available to first-time homebuyers and people who have lost their homes through foreclosure or divorce in the last seven years and have been V.I. residents for at least five years.
The bill hinges on the government getting land for housing sites. Hansen is proposing three ways this can be done:
– An real property owner delinquent in tax payments could, in lieu of having that property sold at auction, convey contiguous property of not less than three acres to the government.
– A property owner could, in exchange for conveying not less than three acres of land to the government, receive a 20-year tax rebate.
– The Housing Finance Authority would identify for transfer and conveyance suitable, available government property.
Sen. Ronald Russell on Thursday questioned some of the bill's provisions. To avoid "haphazard" construction, he said, the territory should have a land and water use law in place before starting a housing program. "The delinquent taxpayers might want to turn over land that is not desirable," he said.
Hansen said the Housing Authority "would determine the suitability of the land."
Russell also wondered if there is a market for 2,500 homes. Hansen quoted a statement by Clifford Graham, director of the Housing Finance Authority, that he has a "waiting list of 3,300 for affordable housing."
One amendment was made to the bill. In a previous hearing, Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. had objected to a section stipulating that 10 percent of the homes would be reserved for certain government employees such as teachers and police. White said the restriction could pose a problem for developers.
On Thursday, Sen. David Jones offered an amendment eliminating that section of the bill, leaving all of the homes available to anyone otherwise qualified. The bill as amended passed unanimously.
Hansen said later that he had no objection to the amendment. "It was the section I would object to the least, and it could present problems for the developers," he said.
In other action, the committee:
– Approved an amendment by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to the territory's new Waste Management Authority law. Hill, the bill's sponsor, said he had no problem with the amendment. He expressed satisfaction that the WMA board has already met twice and said he hopes the governor will submit his nominations for the final two board seats soon.
– Approved unanimously and without discussion a bill adding three chapters to the territory's Uniform Commercial Code the Uniform Securities Act, Uniform Money Services Act and Uniform Prudent Investors Act. Sen. Lorraine Berry, the bill's sponsor, wondered aloud why more time wasn't spent on the voluminous legislation, but to no apparent avail.
– Approved, also unanimously, a bill providing a $75 per diem meeting allowance for members of the Magens Bay Authority board. At present, board members are compensated only for expenses.
Committee members present for the meeting were Sens. Berry, David, Carlton Dowe, Hill, Jones and Russell. Sen. Douglas Canton Jr. was excused. Non-members Emmett Hansen II and White also attended.
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