Sept. 18, 2008 — After passing through two Senate committees in the past month, a bill authorizing the Public Finance Authority to provide $34.4 million in start-up financing to Crucian Holdings LLC for a large scale tilapia and shrimp farm on St. Croix could not generate enough support to make it through Thursday's full Senate session.
Most senators had two major qualms about the bill, and one was that PFA officials have already said the agency doesn't have enough money in its coffers to cover the loan.
"The PFA can't commit the revenues of the Virgin Islands — that authorization would have to come from the Legislature, and those are for specific projects," PFA head Julito Francis said during a recent Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting.
"We don't just sit on any money that isn't committed. At the end of the day, a direct loan of $34.4 million for a start-up venture is a significant monetary investment with substantial investment risk that exceeds the PFA's current capacity."
On Thursday, senators questioned whether the company would be able to repay the $34.4 million at the end of three years. They were also dissuaded by figures presented recently by James Rakocy, an aquaculture expert on the faculty of the University of the Virgin Islands, who has twice warned senators about the failure of various shrimp farming ventures across the Caribbean and Asia.
"I want no dead fish and I want no rotten shrimp," said Sen. James A. Weber III. "This proposal has not had my support from day one — you guys can vet it forever, but I'm not going to play."
While visibly upset from the lack of support, bill sponsor Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste made a motion to send the proposal back to the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture for further consideration, or until "St. Croix senators decide what they want to do with it."
Voting in favor of the motion were Sens. Neville James, Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Basil Ottley Jr., Ronald E. Russell, Carmen M. Wesselhoft, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.
Voting against the motion were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Usie R. Richards and Weber. Sens. Liston Davis and Louis P. Hill abstained.
Senators also locked horns on a bill aiming, among other things, to lure specialized captive insurance and reinsurance companies to the territory with tax benefits. But despite the concerns — most of which focused on recent turmoil within the national health insurance market — the bill still passed on an 8-to-7 vote, with Figueroa-Serville, James, Nelson, Richards, Weber, Wesselhoft and Williams voting against it and Davis, Dowe, Hill, Jn Baptiste, Malone, Ottley, Russell and White voting in favor.
The morning's firestorm of debate simmered down later in the day, as all senators put their full support behind a bill calling for the Department of Education to allow for K-12 instruction on St. John and the government to construct, renovate or acquire a building for a school.
Calling the proposal a "no-brainer," Wesselhoft said a St. John high school was "something that should have been done a long time ago."
"The law as it is now doesn't provide for 10th through 12th grade instruction on St. John — it doesn't provide for a high school," she explained. "But you can see, when you're watching the students get up for school at five-thirty every morning to take the boat over to St. Thomas — it's almost like a job for them — that this bill is a long time in coming, and as soon as we get the building, we have to move quickly to start putting things in place for the high school on St. John."
During recent Senate hearings held on the issue, Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry said her department is working with the university to collect various demographics that would help determine the configuration of the school and whether it would mirror the size of other high schools in the territory or be built on a smaller scale with "alternate" forms of instruction.
Senators also unanimously approved bills:
— appropriating $100,000 for the Bureau of Economic Research to conduct a living wage study on what residents need to be earning, at a minimum, to cover basic living expenses such as rent or housing, food, child care, health care and transportation, among other things (Ottley, the bill's sponsor, said Thursday that establishing a living wage standard would "finally give us the scientific basis to attack" federal policies that do not reflect the cost of living and working in the territory) and;
— preventing employers from forcing their employees to participate in "employer-
sponsored" political or religious events.
All senators were present during Thursday's session.
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