June 28, 2001 – By passing an amendment closing legal loopholes in earlier legislation, the Legislature paved the way Thursday for the territory to receive a $1.4 million payment this year and millions more over the next two decades from a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies.
The amendment was to the original act allowing the V.I. government to participate in the 1998 out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit against tobacco companies.
But the Senate opted not to address a long list of supplemental budget appropriations requested earlier this week by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, instead referring them all to the Finance Committee.
The tobacco settlement gives the Virgin Islands and other states and territories cash payments in exchange for exempting tobacco companies from future legal action. The statute the territory was required to enact in order to participate in the deal contained typing and technical language errors that needed to be corrected by July 1.
Additionally, according to the master settlement agreement reached in 1998, the state and territorial laws could not be attached to any other legislation, Yvonne Tharpes, assistant legal counsel for the Legislature, said.
The revisions are "just for clarity, so that we don't have any argument from a tobacco company that the legislation was repealed or re-enacted," she said.
Changes to the tobacco settlement law made by the 23rd legislature were added to the Omnibus Act of 2000, which also included various zoning changes, the creation of a tourism authority and legislation allowing vendors to operate at Drake's Seat.
Turnbull — who must sign the amended bill into law by Friday — submitted legislation to make the needed changes at the last minute because the Virgin Islands was unaware its law was not in compliance with the master settlement agreement, according to Paul Gimenez, Government House legal counsel.
Gimenez said if the loopholes in the law had not been closed by July 1, the Virgin Islands would have risked losing any future payments of its the roughly $50 million portion of the settlement over 25 years. And, he added, some $2.4 million in tobacco settlement funds the territory has already received could have been recalled.
He said other states and territories, including Guam, had to make similar last-minute changes to their statues to avoid losing payments.
When the special session of the Senate, announced by the governor on Tuesday, was called to order just after 9 a.m., the bill was sent back to legal counsel for further revision to correct errors made in numbered subsections of the law, to replace some phrases and to insert sections that had been omitted. It was four hours later that the final version of the bill was brought to the floor.
The Senate approved the changes, 14-1, with Sen. Adelbert Bryan casting the "nay" vote.
The majority bloc voted to send the multiplicity of proposals from the governor to appropriate millions of dollars of supplemental funding for this fiscal year to committee. The action was on an 8-7 vote, with minority senators protesting that certain spending proposals, including matching a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were too important to hold off on.
"We are in the midst of hurricane, season and such an important piece of legislation should not be sent to the Finance Committee," Sen. Emmett Hansen II said of the FEMA measure.
The majority sent the bill to committee because the members need time to look over the spending proposals, Sen. Carlton Dowe, a majority member, said.
"I would like to take some time to digest this," Dowe said. "We have only just received this document. It is not a matter of trying to hold up anything,"
Turnbull released his itemized supplemental appropriations request on Tuesday, the same day he called the special session. Many of the items lack detail. To see them, go to the governor's proposal.
The Senate majority also voted to send a bill to amend the Uniform Commercial Code to the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee.
A series of separate supplemental minority appropriation proposals announced on Wednesday was not introduced as an amendment to the governor's spending plan before the majority voted to send the Turnbull proposals to the Finance Committee.


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