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Sunday, July 21, 2024


Soon-to-retire Chief Territorial Court Judge Verne A. Hodge made crystal clear his position on the gasoline excise tax Thursday afternoon before the Senate Finance Committee.
Hodge has many times tried to help promote the return of excise taxes on gasoline products made in the U.S. Virgin Islands. When he raised the issue again during his August presentation of the FY 2000 budget for the Territorial Court, Finance Chairwoman Lorraine L. Berry invited him to pursue the matter by forming a gasoline excise tax task force.
The judge said he would offer his support as his schedule permitted.
Hodge returned Thursday to the Legislature saying the barriers put up against pursuit of the excise tax went all the way to the pinnacle of government.
"We truly need all our leaders to work together for something so important to the survival and quality of life for our people," he said. "Many of our leaders continue to oppose the return of the gasoline excise tax to our treasury under the guise of assorted technicalities."
Hodge outlined the objections raised by top officials against going after the gasoline taxes: that the matter was pursued, defeated and is now a "dead issue," that the proposed excise tax does not fit the criterion for excise taxes, and that attempts to have the tax returned to the V.I. would jeopardize other initiatives.
Other fallacies, according to Hodge, included a sentiment that the Virgin Islands is already collecting taxes on gasoline products; that the case has already been dismissed in court; that the U.S. Interior Department and President Clinton have stated objections to an excise tax; and that the proposed tax does not fit the criteria of an equalization tax. Other officials have expressed the desire to table further discussions of a gasoline tax until some future date.
Finally, he said, local officials have said the U.S. Congress has already acted to block the excise tax by amending laws applicable to the territory.
The presiding judge urged senators to draft legislation that would amend federal laws and allow for the return of the gas taxes.
"Congress has the authority to amend the law and to order the return of the excise taxes pursuant to its plenary authority over the Virgin Islands under Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution," Hodge said.
Because of the current state of the V.I. economy, he said leaders must resolve every objection and make pursuit of the excise tax a priority.
"Not one of the forgoing excuses should prevent the immediate drafting of the necessary amendatory federal legislation and the justification dossier so that the educational and legislative process may begin," he said.
Though securing the tax legislation may be difficult, he said, this does not excuse leaders from undertaking a task that could result in a significant and badly needed revenue stream.
Freshman Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole earlier this year spoke up in favor of reviving the pursuit of gasoline excise taxes, but Delegate to Congress Donna Christian-Christiansen said it would not be prudent and might hamper the efforts of the administration now trying to persuade Washington to grant leniency on the payback of Community Disaster Loans secured after the hurricanes that have plagued the territory since 1989.
The last major effort toward capturing gasoline excise taxes for the territory took place in the mid-1970s but was rejected by the U.S. District Court.
During his appearance before the Finance Committee in August, Hodge said collection of these taxes at about 4 cents a barrel of gasoline product could produce enough revenue for the territory to wipe away a major portion of the current deficit.

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