Jan. 22, 2003 – The League of Women Voters has extended its biennial luncheon invitation to the members of the 25th Legislature to talk about their priorities for the next two years.
The meeting is set for Monday noon at Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas, and the public is invited.
The league's concerns have remained similar over a number of years, the group's president, Erva Denham, said on Wednesday, and this year will be no different. Long among the top priorities have been a comprehensive land and water use plan, a reduction in the Senate size and the convening of another constitutional convention.
"These are broad areas," Denham said. "We tell them what we want, and they tell us where they stand."
She said she sees the new Senate as having "wonderful possibilities."
In many respects the 25th Legislature doesn't have a tough act to follow. The 24th will likely be remembered for discord, rancor and indiscriminate spending, exemplified by the lease-purchase of 30 new sport utility vehicles for the members' own use.
Not only did the previous Legislature not work in tandem with the administration; the senators were continually at odds among themselves. The "Millennium Eight," as the majority coalition dubbed itself, threatened to fall apart before it got going.
Early in 2001, Majority leader Celestino A. White Sr. scoffed at rumors of discord and announced that the majority caucus would survive. He was right about that it even gained one more member when minority Sen. Emmett Hansen II defected.
The new 10-member Democratic majority, headed by Senate President David Jones, has announced a determination to work in unity with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, something the previous Senate seldom did.
Although Jones has vowed to work closely with the governor, a note of discord already looms on the horizon. In its now infamous lame duck session of Dec. 23, the 24th Legislature overrode the governor's third veto of video lottery operations, in this case exclusively for St. Thomas and St. John.
Jones had championed the bill and maintains he still favors it, contending it will bring needed revenues to the territory. Turnbull said in his State of the Territory speech that he will send a bill to the 25th Legislature repealing the VLT law. And the Democratic Party Territorial Committee has come out in favor of repeal.
In the 24th Legislature, despite repeated requests from the administration, Finance Committee chair Alicia "Chucky" Hansen refused to grant lump-sum budgets to executive departments and agencies so that they could determine their own spending priorities. This forced the heads of several sectors to return to the Senate, hat in hand, for minor fund transfers.
On the executive side, Turnbull insisted on approving all commissioners' appearances before Senate committees, saying the regularity with which they were "invited" to testify was cutting into their working hours. This resulted in a series of subpoenas being issued, with some commissioners still not appearing. The issue faded into the background after the Fiscal Year 2002 Budget was sent to Government House.
The rift between the majority and minority was pronounced when the minority walked out of a Senate session where the majority refused to allow government fiscal officers to testify on step increases for government workers. The funds the majority granted for the raises were from a bill enacted by the 23rd Legislature. The issue of who deserved credit for the funding continued throughout the two years.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg's bill reducing the number of senators to nine from 15 was soundly rejected by the majority, although an overwhelming proportion of voters had endorsed the idea in a referendum in the November 2000 elections. Sen. Emmett Hansen II tried long and hard to drum up support for his infrastructure bill to fund street lighting and road and water repairs from a portion of property taxes. He finally succeeded, only to have Turnbull veto it, after which Hansen was unable to rally colleagues for an override.
The 24th Legislature passed legislation in the summer of 2001 giving thousands of government employees long-awaited pay raises. But the senators are more likely to be remembered for the generous pay hikes they granted themselves, the governor and the lieutenant governor in that fateful Dec. 23 meeting — even if Turnbull ultimately vetoed them, in the face of protests throughout the territory.
As a result of that exercise in demonstrative democracy, the new Legislature will have its feet held to the fire by community groups. The protestors who demonstrated including several labor unions on St. Croix and St. Thomas and the new Citizens for a Fiscally Responsible Government on St. Thomas are now focusing on other fiscal and educational issues, with a common message to elected officials: "We are watching you."
The 24th Legislature did leave some far-reaching legacies. One was establishing the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park on St. Croix. Another was passing the Child Protection Act — which, after a three-year battle, then-minority member Lorraine Berry finally managed to get approved. The act strengthens penalties for child sexual abuse and toughens the territory's laws on rape.
Two major bills never made it out of committee — calling for the creation of a Waste Management Authority and the adoption of a comprehensive land and water use bill. Freshman senators Louis Hill and Shawn-Michael Malone have said they will push for the land- and water-use legislation this time around.
At the last League of Women Voters session for senators, on Jan. 29, 2001, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, newly installed president of the 24th Legislature, listed that body's expectations. He cited education as the Senate's first priority, saying the body would seek greater federal assistance for education. The territory lost accreditation of three of its four public high schools in 2001; the fourth has never been accredited.
Led by the Rules Committee chair, Carlton Dowe, the Senate enacted legislation which was approved by Turnbull to assist in the school re-accreditation process. It calls for:
– Increasing the base level of the Education Initiative Fund to $50,000 from $10,000.
– Assigning a fiscal officer to each junior and senior high school.
– Establishing a substitute teacher pool and providing for school principals to pay the substitute teachers directly.
The Senate also approved, in the face of intense public opposition, controversial rezoning for the development of property at St. Thomas's environmentally undisturbed Botany Bay. And in their last session, the senators passed seven rezonings that Turnbull then vetoed because they had been approved without public hearings.
Denham stressed that the public is invited to the Jan. 27 meeting. The luncheon cost is $21. For information and reservations, call Clovis Emanuel at 777-6147.
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