June 11, 2005 – The Senate has recently focused on programs like the EDC. This week's meetings, all of which were on St. Thomas, focused on people and bills. Senators were not very approving of either, as proposed legislation got held up in committee and senators questioned nominations by the governor.
Monday, June 6
The Committee on Finance approved legislation calling for a $500,000 budget appropriation to the Pharmaceutical Assistance Program's Aged Special Fund. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said seniors have been forced into difficult decisions as the cost of living has increased.
"They are balancing their money between food and medicine," added Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, finance vice chair, "and that is not right."
The bill, introduced by Sen. Liston Davis, originally called for a $300,000 increase, but passed at $500,000 due to an amendment made during the hearing by Donastorg. (See "Committee Approves Funds for Drugs for Elderly").
The committee also considered a bill to establish a central grants agency to pursue and track funding.
Ira Mills, Management and Budget director, stated he does not believe "in the creation of yet another government agency without changing the basic systemic processes we have now including the issues of hiring, procurement and inventory control." Referring to the Senate's call for the establishment of the agency, Mills said government offices are addressing this concern. (See "Idea of Central Grant Agency Doesn't Win Approval").
The committee also considered Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt's request for an increase in funding of one half percent of the executive budget.
"The proposal included in this bill to statutorily set the annual funding level for the V.I. Inspector General's Office addresses one of the remaining impairments to independence; however, there are other areas that need to be addressed so that the office can effectively carry out its responsibilities in an independent and consistent manner," van Beverhoudt stated.
(See " Inspector General Wants More Independence").
Van Beverhoudt advocated the creation of a strong and independent local audit unit, its ties severed from the executive branch and able to make its own decisions. The committee decided to hold the bill.
In a busy day, the committee went on to consider authorizing the payment of contracts and purchase orders entered into in violation of the V.I. Code. (See "Senators Put Hold on Paying Irregular Contracts").
Thursday, June 9
The Rules and Judiciary Committee decided to hold a couple of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's nominations. George Suarez had been nominated for the Waste Management Authority. He was questioned about the reconstruction of wetlands on St. Thomas and St. Croix and also about his past and charges of criminal activity.
The nomination of Roger Minkoff to the Real Estate Commission was also held until further notice due to testimony by Augustin Ayala, who stated the board requires not more than three members as licensed real estate brokers. Already serving on the commission are Jan Henley, Lauritz Schuster and Peggy Simmonds, all real estate brokers.
Minkoff, who submitted written testimony to the committee, did not show up for the hearing. Richards claimed Minkoff's nomination has been before the committee since Feb. 2 but has never reached a point of approval.
The committee also discussed a bill to petition Congress to allow municipal governments on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
"The municipal issue has a lot of grassroots interest," Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said. "It's better to present it in the public hearings so that people really have the opportunity to come in on it."
Dates for the public hearings are 6 p.m. Monday, June 13, on St. John; 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 14 on St. Croix; and 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, on St. Thomas. The hearings will be held in the Senate buildings on the respective islands.
Also discussed was an amendment to the Organic Act lowering the number of voters required for an initiative to take effect. Due to a lack of testimony on behalf of the bill, Richards talked to colleagues about the possibility of inviting discussion from members of the Board of Elections, as well as other individuals from various departments.
Finally, a bill to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, proposed by Sen. Craig Barshinger, was held up due to lack of testimony. Although Barshinger responded favorably to this motion, he did state that this legislation seeks to "eliminate the oppressive nature of sexual harassment wherein people do not live up to their full potential because they are in a hostile environment."
When Nelson sought to confirm that this bill was not a reiteration of prior legislation, Barshinger commented that many common ideas regarding the negative nature of sexual harassment have not actually been codified, and as a result, he wants to make sure that "all boundaries are clearly defined, with the playing field clearly delineated."
Friday, June 10
The committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice considered a bill to prohibit the use of mobile telephones while operating a motor vehicle. David said he has seen a number of "near misses" while motorists were on their cell phones, and acknowledged that he was guilty of being distracted when he's on his cell phone while driving. David called for fines not less than $25 and not more than $100 for the first offence; $50 to $200 on the second; and $100 to $500, and suspension of driver's license for up to one year, on three or more violations.
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis testified that "distraction" tops the list that is causing the increase in automobile crashes. He said there is a "technology crazed, distracted, multi-tasking" motoring public that is endangering the community. He recommended expanding the proposal to include other electronic devices. The bill will be held in committee for amendments.
The committee also heard testimony on a bill to establish a chief of police structure on the islands. Lewis was not in favor of this bill, saying the present structure was best and was more cost effective.
Some of the problems Lewis noted with the proposed district chief structure were that it lacks unity of command, is destructive to good order and discipline, creates turf battles and lacks consistency of performance.
Some senators disagreed with Lewis. Berry said residents on St. Thomas feel the police department was run by officials on St. Croix. Sens. David and Hill also expressed support for the measure, saying it will help make the department less bureaucratic, more cost-effective and efficient. Berry successfully offered an amendment authorizing the police commissioner to assign the district chiefs rather than the governor.
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