March 7, 2006 – The only thing senators unanimously agreed on at a Legislative session Wednesday was a resolution to honor Carnival Queen K'Misha Victoria Counts for her dedication to the culture and people of the Virgin Islands. Only Sen. Ronald E. Russell abstained.
Senators were passionately divided on almost everything else, which included resolutions to petition the U.S. Congress to allow Virgin Islanders to determine their own form of government (See "Rules Committee Sends Three Government Reform Bills to the Full Senate").
After much debate, senators narrowly passed the resolutions petitioning Congress to: empower the Legislature – with the approval of voters – to establish municipal governments on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix; and lower the number of voters required for an initiative to take effect.
Voting in favor of the municipal government bill were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Craig W. Barshinger, Roosevelt C. David, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Neville James, and Ronald E. Russell. Voting against it were Sens. Liston Davis, Louis P. Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie R. Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson abstained.
Voting in favor of the bill petitioning Congress to lower the number of voters required for an initiative to take effect were Barshinger, Berry, David, Donastorg, Encarnacion, Figueroa-Serville, James, and Russell. Voting against the bill were Davis, Hill, Jn Baptiste, Malone, Richards, and White. Nelson abstained.
Another resolution – to petition the U.S. Congress to allow the people of the Virgin Islands to determine where the capital and seat of government should be located – was shot down, however, with only Barshinger, Donastorg, Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, and Russell voting in favor of the bill.
Wild posturing and impassioned speeches throughout the day made it clear that campaign season had begun, as senators picked up the microphone to give their opinion on the bills. "I'm in opposition to anything that petitioning Congress to take action on something that we should be able to do right here in the territory – especially since we have been given the authority to establish our own constitution," Sen. Usie R. Richards said. "The federal government is sick of us petitioning them, and yet we're still sitting here spinning our wheels. So, I'm not going to endorse any process which we should be doing right here, under our purview."
In December, legislators voted to postpone until 2007 a constitutional convention slated to take place in 2006.
Most senators agreed with Richards, saying the territory should have already begun drafting its own constitution. "Right now, colleagues, the Virgin Islands is vulnerable," Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said. "Our petitions and resolutions have no force of law – they can, at any time, be repealed by Congress if they chose to do so. the people are calling out for constitutional issues like establishing municipal governments, and we have to show them that we're politically mature enough to determine our own governmental status."
In his bid to move the capital to St. Croix, Russell claimed that shifting the seat of government would take senators away from a smaller and more congested St. Thomas. However, other senators disagreed. "Shifting the capital would only pit St. Thomians against Crucians, and Crucians against St. Thomians," St. Croix Sen. Norman Jn. Baptiste said. "It will not improve life for our citizens."
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry weighed in on the issues by stating that the three bills have been before the Legislature for the past four years. "And I think this is the farthest they're ever going to go," she said. "You know, the fact of the matter is that we don't know what we're doing most of the time – we vote to have a [constitutional] convention, and then we delay it, and we delay it because no one wants to deal with the issues because that takes time and effort so we're left with the same status quo.
"We think we know what the people want, but we don't. I've heard the community say they want municipal governments, or to cut the number of senators – these bills are about listening to the people, and letting them vote on what they want," said Berry, who voted yes on both the municipal government issue and to lower the number of voters to pass an initiative.
After two hours of debate on five issues, senators also voted to approve one other bill, which declares May 5 as "Paws for a Cause Day" in recognition and observance of the passage of an animal anti- cruelty bill in the Virgin Islands. "The bill would also serve as a mechanism for residents to educate themselves about animal cruelty and how they can take care of their pets," said Donastorg, the bill's sponsor.
"Paws for a Cause?" questioned Jn Baptiste when the bill came up for vote. "We have so many burning causes in the territory – youths killing youths, healthcare issues, problems with our schools – and the cause we choose is dogs?"
However, he voted in favor of the bill along with Barshinger, Berry, David, Davis, Donastorg, Encarnacion, Hill, James, Malone, Richards, and White. Nelson voted against the bill, while Figueroa-Serville and Russell abstained.
All senators were present at Wednesday's meeting.
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