Saying it amounted to an “unfunded mandate,” the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted against forwarding a bill that seeks to incorporate more agriculture into public school classrooms. At the same time, the committee voted to move forward with a bill that would require the V.I. Education Department to start a pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in the territory.
These were just two actions taken during a busy meeting of the Rules and Judiciary Committee, which voted to send several proposed bills onto the full Senate for consideration during its session on Wednesday and Thursday.
Bill No. 29-0160, also known as the Agriculture in the Classroom Act, is sponsored by Sen. Terrence Nelson. Nelson said in December that the bill seeks to increase students’ interest in agriculture as a career, help prepare future farmers to be successful, and – over the long-term – help the territory produce more health-promoting, local foods.
Under the bill, the finance commissioner would establish an Agriculture in the Classroom Fund, into which a $50,000 General Fund appropriation would be deposited every year.
Several committee members said Tuesday that this simply could not be done.
“My singular concern is money,” Sen. President Ronald Russell said. “The timing of a measure that would need appropriations to implement is a problem to me.”
Sen. Celestino White Sr. said forwarding the legislation without a funding mechanism in place amounted to an “unfunded mandate on the schools.”
“We have to make sure we are not giving the schools a mirage to chase,” White said.
Other committee members objected to the act because they felt it was seeking to do things that are already being done under the Farm to School program.
Committee members approved two amendments offered by Nelson, but voted 4-3 to keep the amended bill at the committee level.
Sens. Alicia Hansen, Sammuel Sanes, Russell, and White voted in favor of holding the bill in committee. Sens. Carlton Dowe, Patrick Sprauve, and Usie Richards voted against holding the bill.
The committee unanimously voted to forward an amended version of Bill No. 29-0011, which would establish a free and voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds across the territory.
Under earlier versions of the bill, the program would start at the beginning of next school year, and be would paid for with money from the General Fund. On Tuesday, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Alvin Williams, offered an amendment that stripped away the 2012/2013 school year implementation deadline and put no other start date in its place. Williams’s amendment, which was approved, also revised the legislation to say the program will be funded by the General Fund “or other appropriate sources of funding.”
In December, education leaders said they agreed wholly with the intent of the bill, which they believed would improve students’ academic achievement and test scores; however, they said they were worried about the reality of meeting its mandates in the face of fiscal crisis and shrinking General Fund allocations.
In other business, the committee voted to forward to the Senate an amended version of Bill No. 29-2552, the Sustainable Tourism Through Arts-Based Revenue Stream (STARS) Act. Sponsored by Sens. Louis Hill, Ronald Russell, and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, the bill would give local companies similar tax breaks to those offered through the Economic Development Commission and the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park.
Under the bill, the V.I. Tourism Department would expand its Film Promotion Office to include a music-production division. Working with the Economic Development Authority, the Tourism Department would oversee tax-incentive certificates for local businesses that work with outside musicians and film makers.
Under earlier versions of the legislation, qualifying businesses would not have to pay any Gross Receipt Taxes, nor would they have to pay 90 percent of the corporate and personal income taxes they would otherwise owe. On Tuesday, Sen. Louis Hill offered an amendment, which was approved, to change the gross receipt tax exemption from 100 percent to 90 percent.
A resolution to forward the bill passed 6-0, with Sen. Alicia Hansen absent.
The committee also decided to hold onto Bill No. 29-0239, which would expand the territory’s laws for monitoring and tracking sex offenders. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. President Russell, said legal counsel warned that the proposed legislation may be unconstitutional as it seeks to register offenders who were convicted prior to the law’s enactment. For this reason, as well as other revisions recommended by legal counsel, Russell recommended against advancing the bill until changes are made.
The committee also unanimously approved forwarding Bill 29-0241, which would authorize the V.I. Public Finance Authority to reprogram $650,000 worth of bond proceeds to purchase land behind Roy Lester Schneider Hospital for expanding the Lucinda Millin Home for the Aged.