Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed into law this week a measure giving the Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention free use of legislative chambers throughout the territory, guidance from five appointed attorneys, and an Oct. 31 deadline to produce a final, legally sufficient document.
The ultimate goal of the bill proposed by Sen. Ronald Russell is to amend an existing draft constitution so it conforms to the U.S. Constitution and federal law before submitting it to the territory's voters for approval. If the Halloween deadline is not met, the current constitutional process will be deemed dead.
The Constitutional Convention completed the draft constitution in 2009. Gov. John deJongh Jr. initially declined to forward the document to President Barack Obama, citing constitutional and other problems with several passages.
In December the V.I. Superior Court concluded deJongh did not have the latitude to decide whether or not to send the document on and ordered him to forward the draft.
Since then, Obama forwarded it to Congress, along with a Department of Justice analysis raising questions about maritime boundaries, tax breaks aimed at native Virgin Islanders and other provisions. The most controversial sections said only native-born Virgin Islanders can run for governor or lieutenant governor and that “ancestral virgin islanders” (those who had family in the territory in or prior to 1932) would be exempt from property tax.
In 2010 the U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution calling for the Fifth Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention to reconvene and change its draft constitution to address concerns raised by the U.S Department of Justice. The Department of the Interior has promised some funding for the process, but not as much as some on the convention want.
The Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention has declined to act at all over the past two years.
Russell's substitute bill reconvenes the elected convention as the “Revision Convention” and establishes a quorum requirement of 21 of the 30 elected delegates. A panel of five attorneys would give legal advice, including the Legislature's chief legal counsel, a V.I. Bar Association appointee, an attorney appointed by the governor, one appointed by the chief justice of the V.I. Supreme Court and one appointed by the Legislature.
In other legislative matters, DeJongh approved a requirement for all government entities to conduct a review of their voice, data and Internet connectivity contracts and accounts, as well as a law that expands protection of minors from exposure to the sale and consumption of alcohol. Under the new law, parents or guardians will be considered liable for the results of a minor’s alcohol consumption they permit at home.
The governor also approved measures:
- authorizing the V.I. Public Finance Authority to issue a request for proposals for a "cultural, historical and ecological adventure" theme park and tourist attraction;
- directing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to issue disabled person identification cards to people with disabilities who want them as an alternative form of ID;
- criminalizing giving contraband computers or cell phones to prison inmates;
- reallocating $6 million remaining from a 2007 line of credit to go toward paying outstanding employer contributions into the Government Employees Retirement System;
- approving an opinion poll in the 2012 General Election on the issue of industrial hemp in the Virgin Islands;
- enacting an apprenticeship program originally contained in another piece of legislation the governor vetoed on unrelated grounds;
- increasing the allowable Workers Compensation benefits to $750,000 for certain "Class III" hazardous duty employees;
- increasing the level of the principle amount of working capital indebtedness to finance workers compensation claims and provider services.
DeJongh also approved three bills ratifying various Coastal Zone Management permits and bills granting use variances for a plot in Estate Castle Coakley, St. Croix, to allow construction of a religious bookstore and radio broadcasting studio; and for a plot in Estate Mt. Pleasant, St. Croix, to allow the addition of two residential apartments. He also approved bills amending the official zoning map.
In addition to items mentioned elsewhere in the Source today, deJongh vetoed a measure allowing the University of the Virgin Islands to operate a solar power plant generating up to 5 MW of electricity, and to sell that power to the V.I. Water and Power Authority, saying it would drain WAPA's resources to subsidize UVI.
DeJongh vetoed a bill that would have forbidden members of voluntary boards and commissions from working for the agencies they used to regulate for at least one year after their departure from the board or commission, saying it would "end up penalizing the very citizens who stood to serve when called."
DeJongh also vetoed a section of a law that would have set very low interest rates for economic hardship loans from the V.I. Economic Development Commission, saying below-market rate loans hurt the long term viability of the loan program.