The V.I. Legislature on Wednesday overrode Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s recent vetoes of legislation creating a single-payer utility fund for all government agencies and granting peace officer status and arrest powers to enforcement officers, marshals and security at the Legislature, courts and the V.I. Waste Management Authority.
Sens. Craig Barshinger and Terrence "Positive" Nelson sponsored legislation earlier this year to create a single government fund to pay all utility bills. During committee hearings, the sponsors said their aim was to ensure that taxpayer money appropriated to pay utility bills for government entities actually went to pay those bills. This would help the V.I. Water and Power Authority with its cash flow, which should help it perform maintenance that will ultimately lower bills.
Cash strapped government entities, most notably the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, have made a habit of simply not paying utility bills. Unlike other agencies, WAPA cannot readily shut off power to the hospital, due to the threat to human life, and as a result has little leverage to pressure the hospital to pay.
The Senate passed the bill in session earlier in October and deJongh vetoed it Oct. 16, saying it would create an unnecessary bureaucratic layer in securing payment to the authority for utilities consumed by government agencies.
It "has the potential to adversely impact the current processes established by the Department of Finance to streamline the payment of utilities to WAPA by reverting to a more antiquated and time-consuming process," deJongh said at the time. As written, it would also have the unintended consequence of transferring responsibility for paying utilities for semi-autonomous agencies that pay their own bills, such as the V.I. Port Authority and the V.I. Lottery, back onto the General Fund and taxpayers, deJongh said.
Nelson moved for the override and the Legislature voted without discussion Wednesday to enact the measure over the governor’s veto.
Voting to override were Nelson, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Sammuel Sanes, Diane Capehart, Donald Cole, Kenneth Gittens, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Clarence Payne, Tregenza Roach and Janette Millin Young. Sen. Judi Buckley abstained and Sen. Clifford Graham was absent at the time of the vote.
The Legislature also overrode deJongh’s veto to enact a measure, sponsored by Sanes, giving peace officer status to the Legislature’s top security officers and sergeant of arms. DeJongh said it created two distinct classes of peace officers, with the Legislature officers only having that status while on duty.
"This is inconsistent with the purpose of granting peace officer status," deJongh said at the time.
The Legislature voted, without discussion, to override the governor’s veto, with 14 senators voting yea and one – Barshinger – abstaining.
Also without discussion, the Senate overrode deJongh’s veto to grant peace to confer peace officer status on V.I. Superior Court probation officers and V.I. Waste Management Authority enforcement officers.
DeJongh said he vetoed the bill because neither the courts nor VIWMA "have articulated any compelling reasons why peace officer status is required within the scope of their duties," and it would also "adversely affect their current retirement contributions to the Government Employees Retirement System as their service requirement time would be reduced."
Fourteen senators voted in favor of this override, with Young abstaining.