Six new unfunded mandates, for new school classes, more government-funded involuntary committal, education programs for incarcerated juveniles and birthday presents for centenarians, were mixed in with a plethora of bills sent on to the Senate floor Friday for final votes.
Depending on the bill, senators argued variously that there would be no costs; the costs were negligible; the program would pay for itself in the long run or there exists federal funding that could maybe be used.
The territory currently is facing a $110 million deficit and a recent credit downgrade that will increase the cost of borrowing to bridge.
V.I. law has numerous unfunded mandates on the books now, created by Legislatures past. Often, when there is no specific funding source for a new mandate, it remains unfulfilled, as is the case currently with nine other mandated public school classes.
Two are school programs. One sponsored by Sen. Kurt Vialet mandates the Department of Education develop a gifted and talented program for low-income students in every public school, as well as a tracking and accountability system for all students. [Bill 31-0314]
If approved, it will join at least 10 other unfunded school mandates, most of which are currently not being fulfilled due to the lack of funding.
When it was heard in committee recently, Education officials testified the goal was excellent but budget cuts and staffing shortages made it impossible to do without more resources.
"Unfortunately the Department of Education has experienced setbacks, including but not limited to a loss of experienced teachers who have been trained to instruct gifted and talented students and advanced placements courses," said Anthony Thomas, the Education Department’s chief of staff, in a Wednesday hearing.
Vialet, who was a popular career teacher on St. Croix before becoming a legislator, insisted at Friday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting that the program would cost nothing.
"Contrary to what the Department of Education testified, that this bill requires funding, it requires no funding whatsoever," Vialet said. "It is literally just grouping students – taking your best and brightest students and putting them in one group and giving them to one teacher," he added.
Teachers already know who their brightest students are, so identifying the students is not a problem, Vialet said. He also said he designed a magnet program for St. Croix Educational Complex "that has been in place for 21 years" and did not require any additional funding.
Dividing the students into groups would not address the absence of a qualified teacher to teach the gifted class, which was the Department of Education’s objection.
Some senators agreed that funding should not be an obstacle.
"When people don’t want to do something, the first thing they cry is we need more money, we need more money," Sen. Jean Forde said.
A measure sponsored by Sen. Novelle Francis would create an unfunded mandate for V.I. public high schools to give a required course on civics that includes the functions of the three branches of government and possibly some cultural and colonial, historical elements.
When it was heard in committee, McCollum testified it was not necessary because the schools teach civics now in second, third, fourth and eighth grades and teachers are required to stress civics in other courses. Also she said students have to take three related courses to graduate high school: V.I and Caribbean history, U.S. history/civics, and world history.
V.I. Board of Education Chairwoman Mary Moorhead and others testified in support of teaching civics. But Moorhead also testified there are already nine mandated courses, from Caribbean history to real estate appraisal to swimming, "that do not exist because they are not funded." (See: Senate Considering ‘Structured Civics Class’ Mandate in Related Links below)
On Friday, Francis said civics was offered but not required in the lower grades, and that it should be required. He also said there may be federal funding to pay for the local mandate.
"The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act benefits civics organizations by permitting state and local education leaders to include civics under social studies more broadly in their self-determined definition of what constitutes education, focus on the whole student, by including funding for this initiative," Francis said. In addition, the Department of Interior awarded the territory $1.1 million in funds last year to fund civics education and certainly that article was publicized in our local media Feb. 27, 2015. The ESSA act, approved in 2015, allocates a portion of federal funds to states and territories.
Whether this constitutes new funding that is actually available for new programs is unclear. During budget testimony in July, McCollum said it "is important to note that the preliminary estimate for Fiscal Year 2016 provided by (U.S. Department of Education) is $566,035 less than the previous awards.”
“Hence it is anticipated that the VIDE will experience a shortfall as a result of the reduction in federal funds during FY17 and FY18. Therefore the VIDE will need additional general funds," McCollum said.
The committee also sent on two changes to involuntary commitment laws, increasing maximum length of time for emergency commitment of someone suffering from mental illness or addiction who is an immediate danger to themselves or others will increase from 48 hours to eight days, and for involuntary commitment from five to 30 days. Both are sponsored by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly.
When the bill was first heard in committee, Health Commissioner Michelle Davis said increasing the maximum times for the two types of commitment "serves to increase our costs with no permanent solution."
"It appears to again foster a cycle of holding and releasing that would put a strain on our public health care system at this particular time (and) places an undue disadvantage to Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital" and other government services. Courts could order care off-island at government expense, she said.
It also approved a small, $32,000 unfunded appropriation for vocational programs at the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix, sponsored by Rivera-O’Reilly and Vialet. Vialet spoke Friday about how he had discovered the small, existing program was entirely supplied by the donated time and materials of the teacher. He and other senators spoke about the importance of learning skills to prevent youthful offenders from ending up in prison as adults.
If it prevents one person a year from going to prison, it would pay for itself, Vialet argued. When it was first heard in committee, Bureau of Corrections Director Rick Mullgrav said it costs $48,000 per year to house an inmate in Golden Grove, which is less than the appropriation, suggesting that vocational programs are a good investment. However, in practice, the Corrections budget would have to actually be reduced for the appropriation to pay for itself in the near term.
Finally the committee approved a bill from Sen. Janette Millin Young to give out taxpayer funded birthday presents of $4,000 to Virgin Islanders on their 100th birthdays. The bill includes another $1,000 in burial benefits for each centenarian. It would appropriate $25,000 per year for the purpose. Millin Young argued that the amount of money is small and the elderly should be honored.
All the bills were approved without opposition and sent to the Senate floor for consideration during legislative session next week.
Present were Forde, Francis, Millin Young, Sens. Justin Harrigan, Neville James and Kenneth Gittens. Vialet, not a committee member, was also present. Rivera-O’Reilly was absent.
If approved, the mandates will join others already on the books. In May, the Legislature approved two other new unfunded mandates: one to require the Education Department to train public school counselors in "grief and stress counseling" and one mandating juvenile corrections programs tailored to female inmates. Time will tell which of the unfunded mandates are carried out.