Senators OK ‘Dig Once,’ Probate Reform and Carnival Revamp

Lawmakers huddle in a rush to tackle various bills during their last session.
Lawmakers huddle in a rush to tackle various bills during their last session.

In a flurry of actions during its last Senate Session, the 32nd Legislature approved a host of bills Friday, including the hotly-debated “dig once” legislation and a bill that enacts five uniform laws addressing the lengthy probate process in the Virgin Islands.

On Friday, senators approved Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly’s “dig once” bill aimed at protecting infrastructure by minimizing disruption and costs incurred when laying down underground conduits. The bill mandates cutting into the ground only once and allowing multiple entities, including private companies, to benefit from the resulting conduits. The legislation mainly affects the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, the primary entity laying down underground conduits, and practically mandates the authority install spare conduits for telecommunications providers.

Controversy circled the bill since its introduction to the floor, with opponents citing fears of losing federal dollars specifically designated for public infrastructure improvements. If private companies benefit from such projects, opponents say WAPA may have to return the federal funding.

H. Mark McGibbon, president and chief executive officer of viNGN, also said that in addition to the danger of losing federal funds and a potential threat to national security, the bill is designed to give the territory’s largest private internet service provider, Viya, an unfair advantage over viNGN and the 16 ISPs it serves. Public Services Commission counsel Boyd Sprehn countered the assertion, saying Viya was ordered by the PSC to lay down $75 million in telecommunication infrastructure even before viNGN was created.

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Voting in favor of the “dig once” bill were Sens. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), Dwayne Degraff (D-STT), Jean Forde (D-STT), Myron Jackson (D-STT), Neville James (D-STX), Positive T.A. Nelson (I-STX), Tregenza Roach (I-STT), Sammuel Sanes (D-STX), Janelle Sarauw (I-STT), Brian Smith (At-Large), and Kurt Vialet (D-STX). Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) voted no. Sens. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen (I-STX) and Janette Millin Young (D-STT) were absent.

Nelson made a last-minute effort on Friday for amendments previously voted down in the last Rules and Judiciary hearing. The amendments would have mandated that when a government agency installs or works on conduits within the public rights-of-way, it must ensure they are large enough to house lines owned by communication providers, such as Viya and viNGN. It would also have freed these communications providers to install their own conduits at their own expense.

Nelson’s motion, however, failed when the Senate split evenly between yeas and nays. Voting in favor of the amendment were Blyden, Jackson, O’Reilly, Sarauw and Nelson. Voting against were Degraff, Forde, Francis, Roach and Smith. James, Sanes and Vialet abstained.

All present lawmakers voted to approve Bill No. 32-0327, which enacts a set of uniform laws dealing with probate reform. The Uniform Real Property Transfer on Death Act allows seniors who own their homes to sign and record a beneficiary deed that not only allows instantaneous legal transfer of the home to the intended beneficiary at the time of the homeowner’s death, but also allows the homeowner to retain ownership during the senior’s lifetime. The Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act allows an heir to refuse property for any reason.

The Uniform Custodial Trust Act, meanwhile, allows custodial ownership, where one person owns and holds property for the benefit of another person, whether minor or adult. The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act seeks to clarify procedures for the division of property when a homeowner dies without a will and multiple heirs each own a share of the property. The probate reform bill also contains provisions from the Uniform Non-Probate Transfers Act, which ensures that creditors get paid before the assets are divided in the probate process.

Lawmakers also passed the bill overhauling the operations of the territory’s carnival events. The bill, sponsored by Sarauw and Jackson, would strip the current carnival and festival committees of funding and place the responsibilities of all three organizations under the Division of Festivals to be established within the Department of Tourism.

“I think we’ve done right by the people of the Virgin islands. We’ve taxed and taxed and taxed hoping to breathe life into our economy and we fail to think outside the box,” said Sarauw. “I thank my colleagues actually for buying into the idea of a Division of Festivals in [the Department of] Tourism … I’m just really elated that we’ve done right. We’re on the right side of history.”

Sarauw, who chairs the Committee on Workforce Development, Consumer Affairs and Culture, has been fighting since April for the current carnival committees to hand over records of expenses drawn from their annual government subsidy of roughly $500,000 a year. The St. Thomas Carnival Committee in particular refused to itemize expenses drawn out of some $292,000 in non-appropriated funding, leading Sarauw to draft legislation that would strip the committees of funding altogether.

“We cannot always pass bills to spare people’s feelings,” said Sarauw about vehement opposition from some members of the current committees. “We have to do what’s best for the masses.”

On Friday, Sarauw also commended Jackson for working on the legislation with her and for his passionate defense of the overhaul of the carnival organization structure. Sarauw said she has communicated with Government House extensively on the bill and expects the governor to sign it.

All present senators also voted yes on Bill No. 32-0247, which appropriates $3 million to build a behavioral health care facility on St. Croix. The bill also establishes requirements for operating inpatient and outpatient treatment programs at the facility. The $3 million would be re-appropriated from two funding source meant to pay for two projects that did not occur: $1 million from overpayment refund from CIGNA restore to Juan Luis Hospital’s inpatient psychiatric care unit, and $2 million from the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund budget to build a new Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged.

Senators approved Bill No. 32-0256 enacting the Finance Lenders Law, which seeks to protect borrowers from predatory lenders. The bill creates licensing and regulatory requirements aimed at safeguarding against crushing terms and interest rates imposed by non-bank lenders. These would include car dealerships or furniture stores giving out commercial loans of more than $5,000.

O’Reilly also succeeded in special ordering two bills relating to dental therapy: Bill No. 32-0235, which allows the inclusion of a dental therapist on the Board of Dental Examiners, and Bill No. 32-0236, updating the Dental Healthcare Act to allow the practice of dental therapy in the territory. These two bills were previously voted down in the last Rules and Judiciary hearing, with some lawmakers citing concerns of allowing dental therapists to perform dental procedures above their qualifications.

O’Reilly compromised by limiting dental therapists to practicing only within the confines of public health centers. The two bills garnered enough votes for approval on Friday.

All present senators also voted to override one veto introduced later in the session. Gov. Kenneth Mapp vetoed a bill that would allow the Judicial Branch to reprogram prior year funds to address critical priorities in fiscal year 2019, but with the override, that bill is now law.

Lawmakers also approved the following bills:

– Bill No. 32-0229, which requires the V.I. government to enter into contracts before June 1 of each year in preparedness for hurricane season or any emergency or major disaster.

– Bill No. 32-0062, establishing the Community and Heritage Tree Law of the Virgin Islands.

– Bill No. 32-0345, which changes physicians’ licensure qualifications. The post-graduate training program is reduced from 36 months to at least 12 months, and imposes additional requirements if the post-graduate training program is less than 36 months.

– Bill 32-0350, approving the Agreement for Medical Health Insurance between the V.I. government and United Healthcare Company. The agreement provides health insurance to government retirees and their eligible dependents.

– Bill No. 32-0241, requiring the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Plan to include a protocol for medical patients and others who need to be evacuated off-island.

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