Dec. 16, 2005 – In an often contentious session that lasted late into the night Thursday, Senators approved several measures that will affect the territory’s pocketbooks, culture, and another moving the convening of the fifth Constitutional Convention from 2006 to 2007.
In Thursday’s morning session, legislators overrode Gov. Charles W. Turnbull’s veto earlier this month of a bill transferring $10 million of Public Finance Authority funds from Carifest, a theme park on the drawing board since 1992, to the University of the Virgin Islands Technology Park.
Turnbull said of his veto that the PFA recently approved a resolution to extend Carifest’s financing, and that money would not be available for the tech park. The expiration date for the extension is Dec. 31. Turnbull said that to use Carifest’s money prior to that date would be “tantamount to an impairment of the contract, and would send the wrong message to investors.”
Sens. Louis Hill and Roosevelt David voted against the override.
The tech park bill includes an appropriation of $5.75 million to construct a Supreme Court on St. Croix. Turnbull had said that St. Thomas should house the court, since the Revised Organic Act of 1954 designates Charlotte Amalie as the territory’s capital.
“Until that provision in the Organic Act is changed,” he said, “this is the law of the land, and binding for the Government of the Virgin Islands.”
St. Croix Sen. Ronald Russell said he was grateful for the measure, which he has pushed hard all year.
On the cultural front, the territory now has its own song. Immediately following a moment of silence after approving a resolution to honor the memory of Rosa Parks, Sen. Usie Richards introduced a motion to make the late Trevor Nicholas “Nick” Friday’s song VI the territory’s official song. As the motion passed unanimously, many of the lawmakers – solemn a minute before – broke out into a happy dance.
The official song was added to a bill sponsored by Senate President Lorraine Berry to erect a bronze bust of Friday in Education Park, with $10,000 funding from the General Fund to the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation. Later, Berry mentioned a bust of the late Milo Francis, of Milo and the Kings, similarly proposed, has not yet been constructed. Friday’s bronze would be placed along the absent one of Francis.
Along those same cultural lines, the senators unanimously approved an amendment, introduced by St. Croix Sen. Neville James that could allow for the traditional Christmas races to take place this year at the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack on St. Croix. The amendment appropriates $100,000 from the General Fund to the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department to promote holiday events.
“We have to look out for the sport of horse racing that is critical to our tradition, in particular the Christmas races on St. Croix and the Carnival races on St. Thomas.”
James has been a vocal opponent of a zoning variance requested by TRAXCO that would allow video slot machines at the St. Croix track, an amendment that has so far not reached the Senate floor – it was held in the Rules Committee – even though its sponsors tried twice in the morning session to special order it. (See >TRAXCO’S Racino Plan Still on Hold Along with Sexual Harassment Bill..)
James said Thursday that he “wants to bring some stability to a very unstable situation.” Upon questioning from Usie Richards, he said the amendment would allow for negotiations with TRAXCO. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. noted that the governor would have to act on the legislation immediately for the Dec. 26 race to take place.
The senators unanimously approved a bill to raise government workers’ minimum salary from $15,000 to $20,000 commencing Jan. 2007. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Adlah “Foncie” Donastorg, was special-ordered to the floor after it had stalled in the Finance Committee for further research in October.
The governor recently sent down legislation requesting a raise for himself and for Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, which received much comment in Thursday’s morning session.
“As soon as I heard about that,” commented James, “I knew this was coming.”
The lawmakers approved a far-reaching piece of legislation that would affect the pocketbooks of both government and private-sector employers of members of the V. I. National Guard. The measure ensures that National Guard members called into active service would continue to receive full salaries while away.
National Guard members are paid by rank, which sometimes puts their salary lower than what they were previously making. The bill is problematic. Sponsored by White, it mandates that if a person’s military salary is lower than what they were making in their previous employment, the former employer should pay the difference.
However, the legislation does not detail how the measure would be implemented, nor how it would affect the private sector.
Augustin Ayala, Senate legal counsel, said that all laws are presumed to be constitutional, agreeing with the Organic Act of 1954. The law must have a legitimate state interest, which Ayala said the current measure does by protecting the National Guard employees. If a law is considered unconstitutional, it can be challenged in court.
Another senator said off the floor that Turnbull would definitely veto the measure because of how it affects the private sector. Berry said the bill needs to be amended with information from the V. I. National Guard on projected cost of the measure, and an appropriation financing the bill is needed.
Sen. Louis Hill introduced an amendment changing the date of the Constitutional Convention. He said holding it in an election year would not give it the credibility and seriousness it requires. Hill said that the public has not received enough education on the convention, which is due to be voted on in a special February election.
Hill stressed the importance of holding the convention in 2007 to give it the “serious attention it deserves.”
“This convention affects the lives of our children and our grandchildren. It is of grand importance,” he said.
Hill and the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, verbally sparred over the issue. Early in the afternoon, after Hill had said he would be offering the amendment, Malone had said that the convention could not be put off any longer, citing numerous delays and the failure of the past four conventions. He said there was no need for further delay.
However, later in the session Malone introduced an amendment of his own, changing the dates in his original legislation to 2007. Hill was incensed. He said the legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes had said that Malone’s new amendment was preempted and should have not made it to the floor. Hill said Malone’s amendment was “unethical and unscrupulous,” in that it piggybacked on his own amendment.
Malone maintained his amendment was submitted in the proper manner. His amendment was voted down, and, later, Hill’s amendment was approved.
All senators attended the session.
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