A Senate committee on Tuesday approved a bill aimed at curbing the governor’s powers to indefinitely extend the state of emergency, while accusing Gov. Kenneth Mapp of cherry-picking which laws to enforce and flouting mechanisms for checks and balances.
“Presently, we have a governor who chooses which laws he wants to follow and which laws he does not want to follow,” said Sen. Janette Millin Young (D-STT).
“This is not something that I just stated,” she added. “In fact we can find it in his own veto messages. ‘You can say whatever you want down there and waste your time like little children at the Legislature, because I will follow the law that I want to follow.’”
The Senate Committee on Government Affairs, Veterans, Energy and Environmental Protection convened Tuesday to hear testimony on a bill pushed by Sen. Tregenza Roach (IND) aimed at regulating the governor’s powers in declaring extended states of emergency.
Roach said the bill rose out of concerns from constituents who have asked him why the state of emergency remains in place 10 months after the hurricanes. Current statutes give the governor the authority to declare a state of emergency and to extend it indefinitely at will.
Along with the declaration come powers that would not be available to him otherwise, including taking any action he deems necessary, suspending statutes describing procedures for conduct of business in the territory, utilizing all available resources, commandeering any private property and compelling evacuations.
“The powers are pretty exhaustive and in discussing the bill with my colleagues, the concern is where does the Legislature have a role in this,” said Roach. “Because the governor, by this statute, can continue to declare a state of emergency interminably.”
Two powerful Republican members of Congress have already questioned the state of emergency that Mapp has extended nine times since the storms. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the Natural Resources Committee, expressed concern that it might allow the V.I. National Guard to “seize lawfully owned firearms from their citizens, in violation of their constitutional rights.”
While Goodlatte and Bishop may be confusing two separate executive orders – one declaring a state of emergency and the other mobilizing the VI National Guard – they still sent Mapp a letter dated July 18, demanding documents to include any policies and procedures for arms seizure and any weapons seizures that may have already occurred.
Meanwhile, Roach’s bill essentially inserts the Legislature into the process of deciding long-term extensions of the state of emergency. Under Roach’s proposal, the governor would be able to renew an existing state of emergency for another 30 days, giving him a total of 60 days of free rein. After that, the Legislature steps in: the governor would have to appear before the Senate five days before the end of the current state of emergency and justify the extension.
If the Senate fails to convene within five days, the state of emergency can continue. Roach stressed that the bill does not take away governor’s power to declare a state of emergency, saying it is important that that authority remains intact.
“The idea behind the bill is that it gives the Legislature an opportunity to have the governor or his representatives say to the body what has occurred during the state of emergency,” added Roach. “The actions that have been taken and the action that remain to be done which require an extension of a state of emergency.”
The Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency strongly opposed the bill, stating it may slow down emergency response during disasters.
“This bill may unintentionally have an adverse effect on response efforts during an emergency,” said Denise Lewis, director of planning and preparedness at VITEMA.
“It is the agency’s position that placing another level of approval to extend the state of emergency during a time of crisis may delay the ability to make extremely critical decisions on behalf of the residents of the US Virgin Islands,” said Lewis.
According to Lewis, the state of emergency is also a factor in decisions made by the agency’s federal partners, “thus rendering additional benefits to the territory.”
VITEMA was the only agency invited to testify that sent a representative to the senate. V.I. National Guard Adjutant General Deborah Howell and Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coordinator William Vogel both declined to testify, stating the subject of the bill is outside the scope of their responsibility.
Lloyd Bough, commissioner of Property and Procurement, sent a letter saying the date of the hearing conflicted with a cabinet meeting. Devin Carrington, commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, and Housing and Finance Executive Director Robert Graham did not appear at all, nor send testimonies or letters.
The no-show cabinet members highlighted what the Senate considers a disrespect to the legislative branch.
“This is about the role of the Legislature, and even with regards to the representatives of the governor when they tell us point blank that they’re not coming to hearings, and there are actions that are taken that continue to undermine the role of this body,” said Roach.
Other lawmakers chimed in, condemning the governor’s practice of leaving the Legislature out of the territory’s recovery process.
“The last time I checked, the Legislature is to serve as a check and balance to the administration. We’re not here to be partners to rubber stamp anything,” said Sen. Jean Forde (D-STT).
“It’s not a one-man ship,” said Senate President Myron Jackson (D-STT), who is not a member of the committee. “We’re all in this boat together.”
Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, meanwhile, criticized both Government House and the Senate, the latter for failing to act decisively when Mapp said he will not implement the Senate’s override of his veto relating to the purchase of Estate Catherineberg, technically choosing not to enforce law.
“I warned this Legislature that if you give our governor of the Virgin Islands, Kenneth E. Mapp, your key to your house, which is this first branch of government, he will enter and control it, said Hansen.
Senators voting to forward the bill to the Rules Committee were Roach, Millin Young, Forde, Hansen, and Sen. Sammuel Sanes, who chairs the committee. Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly was absent.