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Changes the Constitutional Convention Could Bring


Dear Source:
It appears the 26th Legislature has drawn its last breaths. With no results from the December 22 meeting it seems that all business may be done for the year, leaving many important issues on the table for the 27th Legislature to take up. Of course, many member of the 26th Legislature are returning and it is my guess that some of the leftover bills will be addressed but not until all new members have digested the information and have been allowed to draw some preliminary conclusions.
The massive proposed changes to the laws of the Virgin Islands will take some time for the new legislature to absorb as will the controversial Vitelco issue and the Supreme Court location fiasco.
As the legislature does that, it may be the perfect time to bring up another important event that will be taking place in March, which is right around the time the legislature may act on the leftovers of the 26th Legislature. That is, the nomination of electors to the Constitutional Convention. Little seems to be known about this important event even though every voter in the Virgin Islands will be asked to participate in its adoption, November of 2008. For now, the people will be asked to choose delegates to that convention starting in July 2007. It seems strange to me that so little is being done to prepare the populace about this election, excepting the few talk-shows and a website dedicated to the Constitutional issues. In fact, nothing on the web site of the Elections Commission even mentions it, even though the submission of the candidate's papers is supposed to be in by March, 2007. A mere 3 months away.
In the past, there has been little discussion on changing from the Organic Act to a Constitution. In fact, it has failed four other times with the last failing effort coming in 1993. It seems there was a great deal of apathy towards changing the system but in recent years a lot of talk has circulated about the pitfalls of having to live under the Organic Act, especially when it comes to the ability of the Virgin Islands government to enact fair real estate taxation.
As it is now, real estate taxes are based on a formula that was established in 1936. Real property was then, and is now taxed at 60% of fair market value at a rate of 1.25% per $1000 valuation. Land only is based on 60% of fair market value at a rate of .25% per $1000 of valuation. Back then, land was cheap. Soon, every piece of property in the Virgin Islands will have been re-assessed based on fair market value. As we all know, values of real estate has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. Ten years ago a property that has a fair market value of $100,000 was assessed $750 in taxes. That same property now may be worth $500,000, based on the new fair market valuation or an assessed tax of $3750. In many instances, especially on St John, that same home may be valuated at $1000, 000 or $7500 in taxes. Quite a jump from only a few years ago and we can't do anything about it until we get real estate tax reform. The Organic Act allows some modifications, like veteran's exemptions and the homestead clause which allows no taxation for real property which is domiciled by only one family continuously. Of course, many properties have been sold over the years and the homestead provision is all but unallowable.
The answer is to change the law and that can only be done by an act of congress or through the creation of a Constitution. Our own Constitution can define how much money we need through real estate taxation and keep it level. For now land owners are scurrying and legislators are legislating in an effort to try to find ways out of paying the whopping new rates.
The Congress, for many years has asked the VI to create a Constitution but we can't seem to find the will to do it, mostly because the people didn't care to change anything. With the new revelations about taxation and the general failure of government, a few more heads have been turned toward at least thinking about it. A Constitution of our own doing can create many changes in how we run government efficiently and how we live our lives. It can possibly force the government to limit spending and limit employees which, of course, limits taxation. Constitutional mandates can provide for autonomous municipal governments (listening St Croix?), limit salaries of government department heads and create a better, more workable educational system. In creating a Constitution, we can also create a status mechanism through a Covenant which can better define our relationship with the United States government and possibly leave the door open to independence as some Crucians have considered.
There will be a Constitutional Convention because the legislature has already authorized it. There will be 30 representative delegates chosen by the people and next July the Convention will commence. Of those 30 delegates 13 will be from the St Croix district, 13 from the St Thomas/St John district and 4 will be elected at large. The delegation has one year to come up with a Constitution and you better believe there will be much political shenanigans afoot during that year. Most long-time politicos will most likely try to keep the status quo, while the progressives will attempt to bring in new language. It will be a fight for sure but a fight well worth the effort. Who will win is clearly up to the electorate because they get to vote for the delegates. Assuming people want change, and that is debatable, then the old-guard politicians will be left out of the voting process but still will have a lot of influence on the delegates' decisions. Finding and electing delegates who will act on independent logic as opposed to politics-as-usual will be a very difficult task. Still, it is always up to the people as to what they want. What they get is what they asked for. On St Croix, there is a majority of the electors that want change and real change NOW. According to the Election Commission there are 53,017 registered voters in the territory (October 2006). Of that figure, 57% are women. There are 25,487 registered voters on St Croix, 25,535 on St Thomas and 1,995 on St John. Once the Constitution is authorized by Congress, it will be brought before the electorate in a plebiscite, which is a vote by all the registered voters. A pure majority must vote to pass it which is 50% plus one. Which means that, as of today, 26,510 voters must vote in the affirmative. St Croix voters alone could make the constitution pass with a little help from St Thomas and St John. So, with the political atmosphere as it is on St Croix for massive change, it is entirely possible that this attempt at passing a Constitution has a real chance.
The Constitution will change your lives and the lives of everyone who comes after us. This is your change to be involved in an historic and monumental event.
What we must do, from now until March, is to seek out those candidates for the Constitutional Delegation who have the same goals and aspirations as you do, get them elected and let them go to work. In about 2 years (November 2008) you will be asked to vote on their labors. It would behoove every voter to have input during that time to ensure that what the new language of the Constitution says is what you really want. It will be a hard battle to get it passed and if it isn't, it will be a long time before the people get another chance. What changes do you want? Here's your chance to make it clear.
Paul Devine
St. John

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