Senate Unanimously Approves Six New Unfunded Mandates

All 15 senators voted in favor of six new unfunded mandates, ranging from new school and vocational programs to birthday gifts for V.I. centenarians, which will become law if signed by Gov. Kenneth Mapp. All six are for uncontroversial purposes that few would dispute would be worthwhile, with available funding.

Several senators dismissed any concern about the funding for the new mandates, arguing that, contrary to agency officials’ testimony, they would cost little to nothing or, in other cases, that since the costs were relatively small and the overall budget is large, the cost was not a concern.

The territory does have urgent, competing fiscal needs, however:

– The V.I. Water and Power Authority, to which the V.I. Government and its agencies owe more than $26 million, has had its bond rating downgraded to junk status;

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– V.I. courts are underfunded to the breaking point, leading to multiyear delays for criminal trials;

– The prison is under court orders to improve conditions;

– The territory’s sewer and trash disposal system: the V.I. Waste Management Authority is unable to pay its contractors and needs many tens of millions of dollars to meet federal mandates to close the territory’s landfills;

– The USVI’s two government-owned public hospitals are teetering on the edge of financial collapse and need tens of millions of dollars after many years of underfunding;

– and the government pension plan, on which many seniors rely, has been chronically underfunded for decades and will soon liquidate all its investments and cease to be able to pay full benefits. (See Related Links below)

Currently the U.S. Virgin Islands is facing a $110 million budget deficit that the government hopes to fill with new borrowing. Due to excessive debt levels and chronic, structural budget deficits, the V.I. Government’s bond rating has been downgraded, which will increase the cost and interest rates on new borrowing. The territory has about $400 million in potential remaining borrowing capacity, Finance Commissioner Valdamier Collens told a senate committee last year.

Two of the mandates affect public schools. 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, Education Commissioner Sharon 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)

In a committee hearing last week, Francis said there may be federal funding to pay for the local mandate. But during budget hearings, McCollum said the department will get more than half a million dollars less in federal grants for next year than in previous years and the department "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."

A measure 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.

Vialet, a career teacher on St. Croix before becoming a legislator, insisted at last week’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," 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.

In Tuesday’s session, senators took Vialet’s lead as a former educator.

"One of our colleagues, of course, is an educator. … He has demonstrated he has implemented such a program and it cost little to nothing. I have to take his word," Sen. Jean Forde said.

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 recent hearing.

Either Thomas is correct that not all teachers are qualified to teach gifted classes or Vialet is correct that all that is necessary is dividing up the students.

The Senate passed and sent to the governor 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, who said Tuesday that the increase in maximum time will help give patients a chance to respond to medication and families more time to plan for care.

"We are trying to enhance the ability of families to get intervention and care," Rivera-O’Reilly said Tuesday.

She emphasized that the increase did not mean all patients would be committed for the maximum time.

"You do not have to keep a patient for 30 days. It is at the discretion of the physician," Rivera-O’Reilly said.

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, she said, suggesting courts could order care off-island at government expense.

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. Senators broadly agreed that vocational programs were valuable, by giving youthful offenders a way to take care of themselves and likely to help prevent some from getting in trouble in the future.

Vialet previously argued that if one person a year does not go on to become incarcerated again, it would pay for itself. 

Finally the Senate unanimously 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 said there were about seven centenarians in the territory now and the amount was negligible.

"$4,000 is not a lot of money. … Let’s not beat ourselves over $25,000. What is that in a budget of about a billion dollars?" Millin Young said. 

Many of the senators praised the elderly and spoke of how elderly Virgin Islanders deserved something nice.

"I think this is a very good way to honor our Virgin Islanders who have achieved that milestone," Forde said.

"We know very well that everyone has something to offer regardless of their economic status, regardless of the educational level we all have something to offer, something we can learn from and make a contribution, and this is just a simple token of appreciation making individuals feel certainly appreciated," he added.

Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd agreed. "We ought to do things like this to recognized these individuals."

"Most of these folks used to work real hard," Liburd said, relating that he knew an elderly person making a $142 per month government pension. "Whatever you could do to help these folks in this centennial year is a good thing," he said.

The government pension plan will soon cease paying full benefits, a fact Sen. Tregenza Roach touched upon while giving his endorsement to the plan.

"I think this is an important measure to improve the living conditions of those among us who live the longest," Roach said.  He went on to say he met with Government Employee Retirement System officials Monday and was told the system needed one of two things: One is "to find $1.4 to $1.7 billion and the other is to cut benefits."

Roach suggested the territory might be able to help address the billion dollar shortfall by creating "a dedicated tax," saying the government gets almost $19 million a year from alcoholic beverage taxes now. He also suggested a baggage fee on through travelers might generate some revenue and said he was asking the Legislature’s legal counsel to draft legislation.

The retirement system has been liquidating about $100 million in assets per year for the past decade.

With multiple competing urgent fiscal needs, existing mandates to devote specified revenues to GERS have been ignored. In 2011, the Legislature enacted a mandate devoting $7 million per year from remitted federal excise taxes to GERS. There has been one payment so far.

Mapp, who promised in his 2016 State of the Territory Address to propose a plan to address the GERS shortfall by the end of the year, has also asked the Senate not to devote that funding to GERS this year, saying it was not enough to fix the problem and a "comprehensive" solution is needed. His Fiscal Year 2017 budget does not include the $7 million and legislation allocating those revenues does not mention it either.

All members were present. All votes on the unfunded mandates were unanimous.

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