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Sunday, December 3, 2023


The biggest cracks in what is supposed to be an airtight budget are likely to come in the sweeping policy measure known as the Omnibus Authorization Act.
The 213-page document includes everything from tax increases to zoning changes to licensing provisions for naturopathic physicians. It is the only one of more than 30 budget bills that the Senate majority is sending to the floor under the open debate rule, thus allowing for amendments to it.
Although senators made a few references to some of its provisions during budget deliberations, the bill itself was kept under wraps until Monday night when the Finance Committee approved it with little discussion. Typically the Omnibus Act is full of policy decisions and special interest legislation and sometimes incorporates previously introduced bills.
Likely to be one of the most controversial items is an increase in the hotel room tax from 8 percent to 10 percent. It also contains a new tax of $10 per day on timeshare units.
Another new tax measure is aimed at residents who shop on-line or through catalogs. It imposes a 4 percent tax on items brought into the territory for personal use. The measure is likely to have the support of local merchants who have long complained of unfair competition from outside suppliers who don't have to pay V.I. gross receipts taxes and excise duties.
The bill offers a carrot-and-stick approach to deal with large amounts of delinquent gross receipts and property taxes, calling for a six-month amnesty for payment and the publication of the names of those property owners who don't pay up.
It eliminates the election day holiday for government workers and provides that they get three hours off to vote (one hour more than the law grants to private-sector workers.) It also mandates that "electioneering shall cease under the provisions of this chapter at 12:00 midnight prior to any election."
It gives the governor the authority to restructure tax collections in Finance, Internal Revenue, the Lieutenant Governor's Office and Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
It also authorizes him to consolidate the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation, the Housing Finance Authority and the Housing Authority.
The bill incorporates a much-talked-about proposal to create a Tourism Authority run by a joint private-public sector board that would replace the existing government Tourism Department. It assigns virtually all of the functions of Tourism to the new entity, gives it bonding authority and creates a trust fund for its operations funded through such revenues as the hotel room tax. The proposal has the backing of the government and business leaders who drafted the Five-Year Operating and Strategic Financial Plan.
The bill also gives the legislative stamp of approval to the agreement worked out by the Cruise Ship Task Force. Under that proposal, the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association says it will increase summer traffic to St. Croix by 15 percent and to St. Thomas by 10 percent if the government does not impose any new taxes or fees for five years. If the association fails, it must pay a penalty of $3.75 per passenger. The Omnibus Act authorizes the governor to accept the proposal.
Again, in line with recommendations in the Five-Year Plan, the bill creates a Tax Study Commission to make suggestions for revamping the Tax Code. And it extends the gross receipts and excise tax exemptions on so-called tourist goods to include many more categories such as perfumes and hand-woven fabrics.
Another provision authorizes and encourages Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to declare a fiscal state of emergency and seek federal funding to assist the territory.
Without any further legislative approval, the Omnibus Act also authorizes design and construction of a government-owned casino/hotel/conference center on Port Authority land at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix.
The bill contains various amendments to existing consumer-protection laws, including a requirement in the Lemon Law that in certain cases the consumer is entitled to a rental vehicle free of cost while his vehicle is repaired.
Slipped in with the policy changes are some zoning changes. They include changing 11.7 acres of land in Estate Diamond St. Croix from R-2 (residential low density, one-and-two family units) to B-2 (business secondary.) A second zoning change is on 1.37 acres in Estate St. Thomas from R-2 to B-2. The bill does not cite the reasons for the zoning changes.
It does give the reason for granting a zoning variance on .739 acres in Frenchman's Bay, St. Thomas. That is to allow a bed and breakfast guest house in what is otherwise an R-1 (residential, low density) neighborhood.
The bill provides a generous pension plan for Territorial Court judges. For contributions of 11 percent, a judge retiring at or after age 50 will receive 30 percent of his compensation if he retires after one term; 60 percent after two terms; 90 percent after three terms; and 100 percent after 20 years on the bench. The plan covers anyone serving after Jan. 28, 1977, and allows judges to make their contributions to the system retroactively. Service during any part of a calendar year is deemed to be a full year of credited service, as long as the 11 percent contribution is made on a full year. Further, the plan calls for double dipping into retirement funds. Retired judges may receive annuities from other sources at the same time as they receive their judicial pension.
Another section of the Omnibus Act gives protection to the Port Authority against lawsuits, capping damages at $25,000, and revamps the authority board.
More than 12 pages of the document are devoted to comprehensive legislation defining naturopathic medicine and setting out standards for licensing people who practice it. Naturopathy means "the art, science and practice of diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disorders of the human mind and body by utilizing education, natural methods and natural therapies to support and stimulate a person's intrinsic self-healing process."
Among its other provisions, the Omnibus Act would:
* Authorize the governor to contract for solid waste and resource recovery facilities.
* Establish a Peace Officer Standards and Training Council within the Police Department, funded in part by a $2 increase in some police fees.
* Establish separate Federal Equitable Sharing Program Funds to segregate federal. law enforcement grant money from local funds.
* Provide for Territorial Court-appointed special advocates to represent the interest of abused and neglected children in court proceedings.
* Provide appropriations to pay judgments against some government entities.
* Give tax exemptions for 25 years to local dairy companies.
* Establish a self-employment assistance program within the Labor Department.
* Completely overhaul the statute on government procurement.
* Revamp the Captive Insurance law.
The bill is sponsored by seven of the majority bloc senators: Senate President Vargrave Richards and Sens. Lorraine Berry, David Jones, Roosevelt David, Anne Golden, Gregory Bennerson and Allie Allison Petrus.

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