While it was a short meeting Monday, members of the Senate’s Rules and Judiciary Committee managed to push some big bills through to session, including one for a multi-level parking structure in downtown Charlotte Amalie and another implementing a new passenger fee that’s hoped will stir up some much-needed revenue for the territory.
Full session is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, and it appears that senators have tacked on the agenda a bill meant to help the territory through its ongoing fiscal crisis — but whether it includes the same proposals submitted last month by Gov. John deJongh Jr. or a mix of new legislative initiatives is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, the proposed $1 per passenger fee — or ocean common carrier tax — will be assessed against every cruise ship passenger to St. Thomas-St. John. The revenue would be collected by the V.I. Port Authority and remitted to the General Fund, which senators have said could help finance a wide range of infrastructure improvements within both districts, making the territory more attractive to visitors.
The bill’s final section also allows cruise ships docked on St. Thomas-St. John to operate their onboard casinos while in port after 5 p.m. The casinos would be available for passengers only, which officials have said would give the cruise ships more incentive to stay later within the territory.
If approved by the full Senate and signed into law by the governor, the fee would take effect Oct. 1.
Responding to concerns aired by Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls at a recent Finance Committee meeting, the bill meant to bring more parking to downtown St. Thomas originally had the Public Finance Authority as the lead agency on the project but was changed Monday through an amendment in the nature of a substitute sponsored by Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe.
Public Works will now be using a "sufficient portion" of the fees it collects from the Fort Christian Parking Lot toward a multilevel — no more than three stories — parking structure that could still incorporate offices and other government agencies, while leaving an open area for Carnival activities.
The proposed structure would basically encompass the perimeter of the Fort Christian Parking Lot, extending along Norre Gade to include the Credit Union and old Callwood Command center, leaving the lot’s existing interior open and available for activities, such as the annual Carnival Village, that currently go on there.
Dowe’s substitute amendment mandates that no historical buildings in the area be demolished, removed or "otherwise disturbed" because of the construction. At a previous meeting on the bill, however, Smalls did specify during open testimony that the existing buildings, such as the Credit Union, would be incorporated into the new facility.
Senators also approved bills:
-appropriating $2 million from the Tourism Revolving Fund during fiscal year 2012 to "exclusively advertise St. Croix as a tourist destination;"
-setting up a pilot e-book (electronic book) program for local public schools beginning no later than the start of the 2012-2013 school year and funding it; and
-appropriating $500,000 from the Education Initiative Fund to the Labor Department for a summer employment program for high school and college students throughout the territory (while Education Department officials recently said the fund was tapped out, bill sponsor Sen. Janette Millin-Young said Monday that her staff had uncovered some inconsistencies in the financial figures submitted by Education, and had determined that the fund would be nearly $1 million in the black this fiscal year).
Amendments tacked on to a couple of the bills Monday: inserts a definition for "severance pay" into the existing plant closing law; and reappropriates $2 million previously earmarked for repairs to St. Croix’s Paul E. Joseph Stadium to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority to cover architectural and engineering services, along with infrastructure work, for a multipurpose indoor complex in Estate Stoney Ground.
The amendment also authorizes Property and Procurement to transfer the title and ownership of the property to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority so the complex can be built.
All bills were forwarded onto the full Senate body for final approval.
Present during Monday’s meeting were Dowe, along with Sens. Alicia "Chuckie" Hansen, Usie R. Richards, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Samuel Sanes and Celestino A. White Sr.