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Senate Synopsis: June 13-17

June 19, 2005 – The biggest news from the Senate last week was what did not happen. The Committee on Rules and Judiciary had scheduled a public hearing for Monday on St. John and one Tuesday on St. Croix to discuss bills that could radically transform the way the V.I. government does business.
One bill called for municipal governments, while the other would lower the number of voters for an initiative to take effect.
But committee chairman Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, citing school graduation season, said this was not a good time for hearings on such important bills. He cancelled the hearings and said they would be scheduled later.
However, senators did meet several times during the week. The following summarizes the week.
Tuesday, June 14
Hovensa main auditorium on St. Croix was filled early in the morning. Senate President Lorraine Berry addressed the crowd about the need for improved health care on the islands, but for the most part senators were on hand just to learn. Sens. Pedro Encarnacion, Craig Barshinger, Liston Davis, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Ronald Russell and Juan Figueroa-Serville were all spotted in the audience.
The proposed system they heard about would make patient information available on the Internet. (See "eHealth Initiative Attracts Full House".)

Wednesday, June 15
Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, St. Thomas
The Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee had a number of bills under consideration. In response to complaints from residents, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg resubmitted a bill, originally drafted three years ago, to establish a Department of Motor Vehicles. He said the bill was withdrawn before because senators were assured problems were going to be fixed in the present system. He said that had not happened.
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis testified that he thought the motor vehicle division should have a separate operating fund but still remain under the supervision of the Police Department.
The committee postponed action on that bill until members had a chance to review Lewis' overall plan for the department.
(See "Senate Considers Bill to Fix Motor Vehicle Bureau".)
Also on the committee's agenda was a bill to increase the penalties for abandoning vehicles and for illegally operating an automotive repair business.
Malone said he was troubled by conditions in his own Bovoni neighborhood. He said, "I’ve seen the Abandoned Vehicle Task Force clean up some areas around the island repeatedly, but people are towing their cars and leaving them anywhere." Malone added the current fine is definitely not enough to discourage the practice of dumping cars.
"We need to send people the message that we will not tolerate litter, junk, or irresponsibility," Malone said.
Testimony from James O'Bryan Jr., chairman of the task force, supported Malone's call for increased fines. "In the last two years alone, there have been 3,500 abandoned cars removed from the St. Thomas-St. John area," O'Bryan said, "and in many of these cases we feel that these cars present a threat to our neighborhoods because they are being used to hide contraband and drugs and serve as covers for other illegal activities."
The bill’s second component — instituting fines for automotive businesses not licensed or properly zoned — did not get universal support.
"I cannot support this measure because it is too broad in its scope," stated Figueroa-Serville, "and it is going to penalize many of our young entrepreneurs who use these little businesses as a means of survival. I would prefer not to deter these young people from wanting to better themselves."
This part of the measure was also sent to the Rules Committee for review and revision. (See "Sen. Malone Calls for Increased Fines for Car Dumping".)
Thursday , June 16
Legislative Hall, St. Croix
The Rules and Judiciary Committee took testimony on the same items it did on Wednesday. However, this time it was on St. Croix. The committee moved to send the bill on abandoned cars to the full Senate but continued to hold on to the bill that would revamp the Police Department.
Friday , June 17
Legislative Hall, St. Croix
The Labor and Agriculture Committee heard a variety of perspectives about increasing the hourly minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15.
Testifiers included Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin; Dave Barber, director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics; Lauritz Mills, director of the Bureau of Economic Research; St. Croix Chamber of Commerce President Diane Butler;
Fred Laue, president of the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association; and Central Labor Council President Luis Morales.
Senators did not seem entirely convinced by business community members' testimony that raising the minimum wage would actually harm low-skilled workers' opportunities for employment.
However, committee chair Nelson did voice support for the suggestion from the business community that, if the government did decide to raise the minimum wage, it would be phased in gradually.
Nelson said a second bill being discussed — which would take away the exemption from the minimum wage law by those who earn most of their wages by tips — would probably die.
Laue testified that tip takers presently make between $12 and $17 an hour with their tips. Other testifiers said that if these tip earners were put under the minimum wage law, businesses could then charge service charges to their guests and then tip earnings would drop off dramatically.
(See "Senate Tackles Bill to Raise Minimum Wage".)
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