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Saturday, July 20, 2024


Virgin Islands political leaders made their thoughts known to Congress Wednesday on how to clarify the process for the adoption of a local constitution.
The Resources Committee of the House of Representatives heard testimony from Virgin Islanders and Guamanians on HR 3999, legislation sponsored by committee chair Don Young (R-Alaska) to make the process for the adoption of local constitutions more efficient in the two island territories.
Delegate to Congress Donna Christian Christensen, a member of the committee, opened the hearing for the Democratic members. Also testifying were Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, Senate president Vargrave Richards, Independent Citizens Movement chair Raymond "Usie" Richards and Republican National Committee member Holland Redfield.
The main aim of enacting constitutions is to eliminate the need for the islands to come before Congress on minor issues that are best resolved locally, Young said.
"I truly believe most of your issues can be better resolved there than from here," he said. "We really shouldn't decide it."
Young said constitutional and political issues can be decided in the framework of his bill without the need for the territories to adopt their own constitutions at this time. "If you decide something at a later time, that's your business," he said.
Christensen said HR 3999 "is important because it paves the way for the elimination of this unnecessary step of having Congress act on local matters in the two remaining areas under the American flag that do not have a local constitution."
Several efforts to draft a constitution in the Virgin Islands have been unsuccessful. Constitutions called for the purpose in 1964 and 1971 failed. At a third convention, in 1978, a constitution was considered approved by Congress after that body failed to act on it within 60 days. However, the constitution was rejected by voters, as was a fourth version drafted in 1980 and approved by both Congress and President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Closely linked to the constitution issue is the political status of the Virgin Islands. In a 1982 referendum, Virgin Islanders voted to decide the territory’s relationship with the federal government before a constitution was drafted.
In 1993, a referendum was held on the territory's political relationship with the United States. Those voting chose continued or enhanced territorial status. But less than one-third of the eligible voters participated in the poll, deeming the results invalid, according to Turnbull.
Last year, Virgin Islanders had to petition Congress to amend the Revised Organic Act to grant borrowing authority for the local government to float a $300 million bond issue. The current issue of reducing the size of the Legislature would require similar congressional action.
In the case of the bond issue, "The amendment, which enabled the government to complete an urgently required financing in the private capital markets is itself a testament to the cause of self-government and the need for the people of the Virgin Islands, through their elected representatives, to undertake the task and responsibility of drafting our own constitution," Turnbull said Wednesday.
"If the Virgin Islands had enacted its own constitution," he added, "there would be no reason to call on Congress to extend its time and attention on such an amendment to the Revised Organic Act."
Vargrave Richards testified that he supports HR3999 but is concerned that it would eliminate the time frame by which Congress would have to act on a proposed constitution transmitted by the President of the United States. He suggested "that this committee consider the inclusion of a reasonable time frame for congressional action on a constitution."
Raymond Richards noted that the bill would not jeopardize "the right of self-determination regarding the ultimate political status of the Virgin Islands." But he expressed a "fundamental concern" about "who shall have the right to draft and vote on. . . a constitution or political status for the people of the Virgin Islands."
Redfield said the creation of a constitution and bill of rights is "long overdue for the Virgin Islands." He described as divisive past attempts which focused on who is a Virgin Islander and who could vote on a proposed constitution.
A constitution would have to pass muster in the House to make sure it is consistent with the sovereignty of the United States; that it provides for a republican form of government consisting of executive, legislative, and judicial branches; that it contains a bill of rights; and that it provides for the establishment of municipal or county government, according to the bill now before Congress.

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