March 15, 2007 — A controversial bill that enacts, among other things, sizeable pay raises for the governor, lieutenant governor and senators should not have been passed and may be repealed during the next Senate session, according to Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson.
During a press conference held Thursday at his office on St. Croix, Nelson added that he supports residents' opposition to the bill and called for community members to "forgive" those senators who voted in favor of it.
"We've heard the outcries, and I know that the community is ill and sickened by what occurred," he said. "It is the people's right to protest, but we need to put this issue to rest now. The community needs to heal, and I'm asking for forgiveness for my colleagues who voted for the measure."
Nelson said that since the bill — which also included changes to the Government Employees Retirement System, authorized the issuance of up to $600 million in pension obligation bonds and called for senators to ratify several illegal government contracts — was signed into law by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, an atmosphere of "social animosity" has settled over the territory, manifesting itself in protests, recall drives and the public "belittling" of senators.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, Nelson said that he recently tried to sponsor legislation to repeal the law but found himself pre-empted — meaning that another senator had already put in a similar bill request. (Because of Senate procedures, senators do not initially know which senator has submitted a bill request.)
Sens. Usie R. Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. were also thwarted in their attempts to remove the law, he added.
"So I'm asking whoever has the authorization to repeal this bill, to go ahead and bring the request on the floor so we can act on it," Nelson said. "And I'm asking for the senators to support it. It's the right thing to do. The law should be repealed. And whatever sections we want to keep can be brought back up in proper hearings and reviewed."
In the meantime, Nelson said he would be introducing an amendment to law that sets up a "public officials compensation commission," a nine-member panel of private citizens charged with reviewing salaries and benefits given to the governor, lieutenant governor, senators and judges.
"This kind of thing is the trend throughout America," he said, adding that the commission would meet every four years to begin the review process. "After a review is conducted, the commission will submit their recommendations to the Legislature, and even if we decide not to act on it, the recommendation will still become law at the end of the four years," he explained.
Nelson said that the commission does have the ability to decrease officials' salaries.
"This is the most appropriate thing to do, because no matter how small or infrequent the attempts are to adjust salaries, it's always an issue that's going to create concerns for the community," he added.
Nelson urged community members to call into the Legislature and voice their support for the amendment, which may appear on the floor during the next Senate session, scheduled for Tuesday, March 20.
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