The Senate, in a marathon session Thursday, debated funding a Sixth Constitutional Convention (it passed), suing the Government Employees Retirement System (it was withdrawn), and legalizing adult marijuana use (it was amended and sent to the governor).
A bill that could be looked at as a companion bill to the cannabis bill because it would expunge the criminal records of persons convicted for marijuana-related crimes and offenses also passed during the legislative session.
Sen. President Donna Frett-Gregory’s office sent out a press release congratulating her colleagues for passing the cannabis legislation minutes before the final vote was taken. The press release said, “As a result of today’s vote, the Virgin Islands joins 21 states and the District of Columbia to legalize the adult use of cannabis for recreational purposes.” She said during the session, “The path to enacting adult-use cannabis legislation has been rocky and winding.”
Sen. Janelle Sarauw agreed with the “rocky” part of the statement. She and other senators cited meetings leading up to the session that enabled the Senate to come up with an amended bill that could be passed. She said, “It was contentious. We went to war over cannabis.”
In a legislative session earlier this month, representatives from the executive branch testified that the bill as it stood then had several weaknesses.
Austin Nibbs, administrator of the Government Employees’ Retirement System, and Dwane Callwood, chair of the GERS Governing Board, testified earlier in the day on a resolution calling for court action against GERS for its failure to implement a disbanded loan program and for not mailing out paper statements to members.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who sponsored the bill, said reinstituting the loan program and mailing out paper statements were mandated by law and GERS could not “pick and choose what laws it wants to follow.”
Nibbs testified that GERS has a target date for the reinstatement of the member loan program. He said the date, Oct. 1, 2024, was chosen “in conjunction with securing GERS’ long-term financial stability.” He added that annual benefits statements will be issued beginning next February.
Callwood added that the reason the October date was chosen was the GERS expects to have its system upgraded by then and the upgrade would enable members to apply online for loans.
As for financial stability, Callwood pointed out that the source of the funding in the rescue plan was the rum cover-over, which was projected at $13.25 per gallon, but presently the amount is only $10.25.
Gittens withdrew the bill in the early morning hours of Friday.
The bill to establish the Sixth Constitutional Convention also had Thursday morning testifiers before the Senate passed it 12 hours later.
Former Sen. Myron Jackson testified that a convention would be a “small step to political maturity and self-government for the territory.”
Several senators asked how this convention might succeed while the previous five had failed.
Gerard Emanuel, a delegate to the Fifth Constitutional Convention, said he supported another Convention but could not guarantee success. He testified, “In a referendum two years ago, authorized by this body, our voters indicated that they wanted the Legislature to create a Sixth Constitutional Convention, specifically to adopt and/or adapt the Revised Organic Act, and send it to Washington for review. After it is returned, Virgin Islanders would vote to approve it as the first draft of a V.I. Constitution. If successful, it would: 1. Overcome the hurdle of getting Congressional approval and 2. Provide a constitution without controversial or divisive provisions that Virgin Islander voters can overwhelmingly approve as a starting point for immediate and necessary amendments.”
Gerard Luz James, president of the Fifth Constitutional Convention, testified that the document produced by that convention was a legal document and needed to be reconsidered. He testified, ”It stands clear to me that the Fifth Constitution document has never been read nor understood thoroughly because others have taken it upon themselves to not only mislead but confuse the general residents of the United States Virgin Islands.”
When, much later, the establishment of the Convention came up for a vote, all 12 members still attending voted for its passage.
Sens. Milton Potter and Dwayne DeGraff missed the whole session. Sen. Kurt Vialet attended the first half of the session.