The V.I. Legislature approved a new, unfunded mandate for the University of the Virgin Islands to allow military veterans to take up to 96 credit hours toward a doctoral degree, free of tuition, during session Friday.
The territory has a roughly $170 million per year structural deficit that it regularly bridges with new borrowing. (See Related Links below) The continuing financing of structural deficits with new borrowing was one of the factors cited by credit rating agencies in recent downgrades of V.I. debt, along with factors like federal intervention in neighboring Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.
The V.I. government’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget appropriates $31.8 million for UVI, up a little from $30 million last year.
Under existing V.I. law, veterans are entitled to up to 128 free credit hours at UVI toward undergraduate degrees and up to 36 credit hours for graduate programs. Introducing the measure, Sen. Sammuel Sanes said the new mandate was a response to the fact that UVI now offers doctoral programs, which it did not offer when the mandate was first instituted.
"There is a program to allow veterans to go to UVI and get their degree," Sanes said.
He continued, “Working with the Office of Veterans Affairs, we decided to include veterans so they can take advantage of the doctoral program.”
The measure was approved without objection as an amendment to an uncontroversial bill [Bill 31-0479] to allow V.I. Supreme Court justices to continue to serve up to 180 days after the end of their 10-year term, to give the governor and Legislature a larger window in which to renominate and reconfirm the justice or to nominate and confirm a replacement.
Another amendment from Sanes appropriates $650,000 in federal alcohol excise tax revenues remitted to the territory by the federal government. Of that, $250,000 is dedicated to the Alternative Education Employment Fund to help find part time work for at risk students enrolled in the territory’s two alternative education schools.
"One of the main factors with delinquency is a lot of youth are having a hard time finding part-time employment and afterschool activities, so the Labor Department and the Alternative Education School are willing to partner up to try to seek employment for these individuals," Sanes said.
The other $400,000 is dedicated to the Department of Human Services for distribution to the V.I. Partners in Recovery center on St. Croix to fund the Sion Hill Long Term Residential Therapeutic Recovery Program for programs that address mental health, substance abuse and outpatient care.
Sens. Jean Forde and Tregenza Roach both objected that the amounts of money were large and that the amount of available funding was not clear, suggesting the measure go to committee for proper vetting instead.
"I don’t think any of us in here disagrees that this would serve a good purpose," Roach said, before adding it was more than should be approved without vetting.
Sanes said there was enough funding available and that the problems the funds were meant to address were urgent.
"Let us bear in mind that this is an epidemic we are facing on an everyday basis, and it is sort of time sensitive in that individuals are waiting to be called for services due to the fact they do not have enough funds to provide services," Sanes said.
Voting to approve the amendment were Sanes, Sens. Novelle Francis, Neville James, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Positive Nelson and Kurt Vialet. Voting no were Forde, Roach, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Justin Harrigan and Myron Jackson. Sen. Clifford Graham abstained. Sen. Kenneth Gittens was absent.
Another amendment from Sanes appropriated $10,000 for the Yvonne A. Galiber Foundation and another $10,000 to the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, both for mammography-related programs.
An amendment from Nelson appropriated an additional $150,000 to the Legislature’s FY17 budget of $21 million, for the Legislature Youth Advisory Counsel.
An amendment from Rivera-O’Reilly corrected the call letters for a $2,000 taxpayer gift to the Christiansted religious radio station WIVH that was already in the 2017 budget.
Senators also approved a Coastal Zone Management permit to allow dredging and construction at the Gordon A. Finch Molasses Pier facility on the St. Croix south shore.
Senate President Neville James said the permit was time sensitive because of a time limit to use federal funds for the V.I. Port Authority to move the cargo port operations in Gallows Bay over to the Gordon A. Finch facility. The Legislature approved a local appropriation for matching funds in September. (See Related Links below)
The Senate also approved legislation ratifying a side agreement relating to group life and accidental death and dismemberment insurance between the V.I. government and ALIC Life Insurance Company and ratifying an agreement called the Second Amendment for Vision Care Insurance between the V.I. government and Standard Insurance Company. [Bill 30-0481]