July 16, 2003 – In addition to repealing the 2-cents-a-pound "environmental user fee" it had passed a few weeks earlier and approving a $235 million bond issue in Tuesday's all-day-into-night session, the Senate also approved five other, less controversial, bills and two nominations.
The bills — concerning responsibility for property tax collections, physician licensing requirements, bicycle regulations, and the set-aside of lottery revenues for educational purposes, along with the Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2003 — took a back seat to the more urgent tax and bond measures.
Repeal of the two-cent tax on most goods imported into and produced in the territory came as no surprise, and it passed on a unanimous vote, with one senator absent for the vote. The fee had been the subject of constant and harsh criticism from the business community, with critics claiming it would boost the price of most goods and could put some companies out of business.
In the face of the protests, Senate President David Jones had said the Legislature would repeal the bill even before Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed it into law Monday night.
For now, the new tax remains law, but its enforcement is doubtful. It also is doubtful that Turnbull will approve the repeal of his law. However, with the 14-0 vote for the repeal, the Senate should have no problem mustering the necessary 10 votes to override a veto.
Sen. Roosevelt David, in introducing the repeal legislation, said, "In hindsight, we miscalculated — that's the truth of the matter." The short amendment was sponsored by David and Jones.
"We feel this 2-cents-a-pound tax would be a hardship, and, at this point in time, we ought to repeal it," David said. However, he noted that the fee was intended to fund federally mandated wastewater and solid waste system repairs and said that the Senate must find "another measure more palatable to the community" for accomplishing this.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who had opposed the fee when it was voted on in June, took advantage of the situation. Unable to conceal his glee at the situation, he chided David. "All you really have to do is say, 'I'm sorry, Celestino'," he said. "Are you afraid to say you're sorry? Just apologize; tell the people, 'Celestino was right.'"
Not all of the floor debate was so jovial in nature, with senators breaking from minority/majority ranks on a number of issues.
The Senate unanimously approved the nominations of Edward Phillips to serve on the V. I. Military Museum and Veterans Memorial Complex board, and Paul L Flemming as executive director of the V.I. Lottery. It then passed two bills in the space of about 10 minutes, with no debate.
The first bill transfers responsibility for the collection of real property taxes to the Internal Revenue Bureau from the Finance Department. The measure passed on a 13-2 vote with Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Ronald Russell voting "no" and in sharp disagreement with the change.
Both called the transfer of responsibility a "dangerous" step which could result in residents losing their property because of differences in enforcement powers between the two agencies. Donastorg said whereas Finance can attach liens to property, the IRB can confiscate it outright.
Donastorg said it was a "historic day when there is no debate on a major property tax issue, and no debate on major legislation which could cause people to lose their houses." The income tax and property tax functions "should not be co-mingled," he warned.
The second bill repeals legislation enacted last year allowing the Board of Medical Examiners to waive examination requirements for the licensing of physicians under certain conditions It was approved unanimously with no debate.
This was at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, after a morning in which the session was postponed from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., finally convening about 12:15 p.m, only to hear Jones announce a lunch recess after the benediction and the playing of the "Virgin Islands March" and the national anthem. Jones said the session would resume "sharply" at 1:30 p.m. It got under way about 2:20 p.m.
About an hour's debate preceded the vote on the safety bill concerning bicycles and other non-motorized conveyances such as skateboards. The bill requires riders to wear helmets at all times, makes it illegal for children under 12 to ride outside residential areas, and sets a 25 mph speed limit for riders, except in racing competitions. The bill passed 12-3, with Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Usie R. Richards and White voting against the measure.
White conjured up a Keystone Cops image of local police being assembled to keep track of bike, skateboard and scooter infractions. "Can't you see them in short shorts, running after them [the riders] with their radar?" he asked.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II saw Senate approval of his Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2003. The bill started out as the Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001. It was vetoed by Turnbull in 2002, and Hansen was unable to secure the necessary 10 votes for an override, even though 13 of his colleagues had voted for it originally.
The slightly altered bill calls for 6 percent of property tax revenues to go into separate funds for street lights, potable water distribution and road maintenance. A delighted Hansen thanked his colleagues profusely for their support on Tuesday.
Hansen had failed to win support for an amendment calling for the government to turn delinquent property tax cases over to a private collection agency. If the government agency cannot perform the function, he said, the work "should be farmed out like the hospital's overdue bills are. It's five years past due, and no collections."
The senators also unanimously passed a bill earmarking 25 percent of revenues generated by games operated under contract to the V.I. Lottery — Power Ball, Caribbean Lottery games and video lottery terminals — for the V.I. Education Initiative Fund. Sen. Carlton Dowe proposed the set-aside during heated debates leading up to the defeat in April of legislation to repeal the territory's VLT law which was enacted in December by the Senate in an override of the governor's veto earlier last year.
The bill also specifies that no more than 75 percent of the V.I. Lottery revenues from the contracted games may be used to satisfy the agency's delinquent obligations. The V.I. Lottery is millions of dollars in arrears in payments due to the V.I. government.
The bill also appropriates $40,000 from the Public Finance Authority for science and chemistry programs at the territory's four public high schools.
The Senate rejected a section of the bill, sponsored mainly by Sens. Dowe, Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Shawn-Michael Malone, transferring $3.5 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund for various educational purposes.
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