April 20, 2006 — After making it through two Senate committees, a bill allowing military personnel and their families to register to vote up to and including the day of an election was halted during Thursday's full Legislative session, as senators said the bill would open up a "pandora's box" of confusion for the V.I. Board of Elections.
"If this bill is passed, then the board would just have to close up shop," Sen. Neville James said. He explained that voters currently have up to 10 days before an election to register, which allows the board to safeguard against voter fraud.
Sens. Craig W. Barshinger and Liston Davis said a specific provision in the bill – which states that "if a U.S. citizen who has never lived in the United States and is currently still living outside the United States has a parent who is a registered voter, then that individual is eligible to vote where his or her parent is eligible to vote" – is particularly confusing, and throws disorganization into an organized process.
"Let's make sure the people coming out to vote are actually certified," Barshinger added.
Speaking in support of the bill, Sen. Lorraine L. Berry said she received a letter from the Federal Voting Assistance Program stating that the Virgin Islands doesn't have a policy in place to help military personnel who want to, but are unable to, vote in elections. She said the bill was also endorsed by the elections board and aligns itself with national policies established for other states and territories.
Despite this argument, opposition to the bill was overwhelming, with Barshinger, Davis and James, along with Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Louis P. Hill, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie R. Richards, Ronald E. Russell, and Celestino A. White voting against it. Berry and Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, and Norman Jn Baptiste voted in support of the bill.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was absent.
A bill to enact a five-year moratorium on licenses for tavern keepers in Frederiksted and Christiansted on St. Croix, along with the Savan area on St. Thomas, was also heavily debated Thursday, with most senators speaking in favor of the bill.
"There are too many bars," Richards, the bill's sponsor, said.
Building on Richards' statements, other senators said the bill would allow for other businesses to come into the territory, would keep more bars from being established next to schools and churches, and would lay the foundation for "how towns should be used and what activities goes on around towns."
"We need to encourage a balance with regards to development," Barshinger said. "If neighborhoods have nothing but bars in it, then that's not a place that you're going to want to be – it would only be a place where people go to drink."
On the topic of balancing development, James and Figueroa-Serville said that senators are working toward drafting a comprehensive land and water use plan, which would designate specific areas in the territory for development.
Barshinger, Berry, David, Davis, Donastorg, Encarnacion, Figueroa-Serville, Hill, James, Jn Baptiste, Nelson, Richards, Russell and White voted in favor of the bill. Malone was absent.
A bill to promote a sustainable farming industry in the Virgin Islands was also approved, along with an amendment clarifying a part of the bill which raised concerns from senators during a Rules Committee hearing April 13.
During the Rules meeting, an amendment was added to the original bill appropriating $5 million from the government's Insurance Guarantee Fund to the Agriculture Revolving Fund to help subsidize a revival of agriculture in the territory.
At the time, the appropriation gave rise to concerns from some senators, who said the money in the fund – which currently has a balance of about $60 million– is designed to help residents in the event of a natural disaster.
Objections to the amendment continued during Thursday's session, as Sen. Louis P. Hill explained that many insurance companies are withdrawing coverage from hurricane-ravaged areas like Louisiana because "they've incurred such drastic losses."
James addressed the concern, however, by offering an amendment requiring that the $5 million come from the excess revenues deposited into the fund, which is currently capped at $50 million.
Both the amendment and the bill were approved, along with a bill to ensure that residents find out how senators voted when the territory's boards and committees go into closed session and another bill establishing safeguards for residents against consumer fraud practices.
All senators except for Malone were present during Thursday's session.
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