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Senate's Second Day Busy, Contentious, Heartwarming At Turns

Feb. 11, 2005 – The newly formed 26th Legislature had a very busy day Friday. The lawmakers approved four major pieces of legislation which Gov. Charles W. Turnbull had vetoed last November, passed four resolutions, approved four nominations, approved 13 amendments — including one to move the Supreme Court to St. Croix – and, in general, got into each others' hair.
The seeming conviviality of Thursday's session appeared to have evaporated overnight. The day started with Sen. Neville James' motion to add two more members each to the Education, Culture and Youth and Finance committees to more thoroughly handle their several duties. The majority was having none of that, and the motion was defeated along majority/minority lines.
The first item on the agenda was introduction of the Senate Rules for the 26th Legislature. Freshman Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville began to ask a question but was assured by Senate President Lorraine Berry that he would have the chance to speak before the rules were voted on.
At that juncture, majority Sen. Usie Richards successfully motioned to waive the reading of the rules, and it went directly to a vote. Minority leader Sen. Roosevelt David was furious. "How can you ask us to read a 77-page document we have just received with no discussion?" he asked. "You told Senator Figueroa-Serville he would have a chance to speak, and now you take it away. This is evil – it is a wicked move, it's biased."
David continued, "When we have sexual harassment issues that should be discussed. I feel tortured. We've worked very cooperatively until now. It's a double standard."
Richards, meantime, loudly proclaimed that no Legislature before has debated the rules.
James agreed with David. "The Senate president should have used her discretion to allow debate. We are a deliberative body," he said, "but she voted for the motion to waive the rules afer she told a senator he would have a chance to speak. What's wrong with setting precedent and debating rules, which contains a very lengthy sexual harassment section?"
"I've been impressed with Berry as chair," James said later during a break, "but that changed this morning when partisan politics came into it."
Figueroa-Serville and other minority members complained that they had not had adequate time to read the four major pieces of legislation that were before them, bills from the 25th Legislature. The senators said the bills should have gone to committee first. Berry said Thursday that the majority could bring these bills to the floor without going through committee, though it was not a procedure she would follow in the future. This process didn't sit well with the minority senators.
This was a running argument all day, as Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. lectured the freshmen senators on the value of reading legislation.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste added to the general ill-feeling, remarking, "They can't think for themselves; they are like impassioned monkeys. Let's get on with the program here."
The program started with the four pieces of legislation Turnbull had vetoed, all of which were approved with large margins:
– Bill 26-0003 – The Omnibus Justice Act of 2005,
– Bill 26-0004 – To increase penalties for animal cruelty,
– Bill 26-0007 – The Financial Services Act of 2005,
– Bill 26-0008 – To increase fines for school vandalism and deposit them in an impress account to defray the cost of damage incurred.
Berry advised senators to add any amendments they might have to the first bill, though she said they could add amendments to the other bills if they were germane to the content.
A flurry of amendments followed the introduction of the Omnibus Justice Act, a massive piece of legislation sponsored by Berry, which went the rounds of committees in the 25th Legislature, finally passing with a unanimous vote.
As many of the amendments dipped into various funds, some senators suggested pulling up short until it was determined if there was actually any money in the those funds. After an amendment by Sen. Liston Davis appropriating $154,000 from the land bank fund for rebuilding bleachers at the Emile Griffith and Joseph Aubain ballparks and another $250,000 for the St. Thomas Swimming Association pool in Estate Nazareth, James said, "Why don't we stop making these appropriations? We don't need to rush." Jn Baptiste asked the post-auditor, Krishnarine Ramkisoon, for an accounting of the land bank fund.
Ramkisoon rattled off a litany of figures which came down to the fact that the fund shows a minus $1.3 million figure. He explained that the fund is supposed to get 50 percent of the stamp tax. He recited amounts that were supposed to have been deposited in the account, but were not there.
Berry explained that's because the Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull was using the money to sustain government operations, which she has the authority to do. Davis withdrew his amendment.
As the amendments wore on, while White was reading an amendment which required a simple technical change, the minority senators motioned to waive the reading. "Waive the reading?" White asked with apparent incredulity. "They've held us up all day complaining about not reading. We should hold remedial reading classes."
James, who has regularly been taking White's measure, explained, "We don't object to the reading; we object to you reading it."
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis was on hand to witness the resolution of the Omnibus Justice Act. In the past, Lewis has objected to the civilian review board in the bill. Lewis told a Source reporter, "I have never objected to the board. What I object to is giving them investigative authority. We have four levels of investigation as it is within the department."
There was no amendment removing the board or changing its purview. However, Berry passed an amendment which she said addressed several of Turnbull's concerns. The bill passed on a 14-0 vote with Sen. Louis Hill absent. Though several minority senators had said they would not support the bill, they had little choice when it came to it, as a no vote would defeat amendments they had attached.
Berry said, "This is a major piece of legislation. It is important to make a statement that we are serious about fighting crime in the territory."
Sen. Ronald Russell was a happy man Friday. To his extreme pleasure, his amendment to move the newly created Supreme Court to St. Croix was enthusiastically approved. Was he surprised?
"I think it's the right thing to do," he said, "so I'm pleased with that. And, yes, I'm a bit surprised."
Russell has been fighting for the move since the legislation came up in the 25th Legislature, noting the economic benefits the move would bring about with added commerce. He said Friday, as he has before, "There is no suitable space on St. Thomas, but it will enhance the image of St. Croix, as well as put St. Croix on the map."
White lauded the efforts of former Sen. Carlton Dowe, who sponsored the Supreme Court legislation, and said the governor is sending down an appropriation to fund the court, which has been estimated by Chief Territorial Court Judge Maria Cabret at about $3.9 million.
Richards successfully passed an amendment to remove the septic tank tax, commonly known as the "toilet tax," from the Waste Management Authority legislation. He said, "This is a double tax, which is burdensome to homeowners."
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who had voted against the WMA, suggested, "How will the authority be sustained? Why don't we just repeal the whole thing? It looks like the commissioner [Wayne Callwood, Public Works commissioner] hasn't much to do these days."
Richards also successfully passed an amendment mandating any person running for public office to keep the same party des
ignation to which he or she was registered at the time of filing. It prohibits persons registered to a political party running as a "no party" or "independent" candidate.
Jn Baptiste said the quarters for the post-audit and public affairs offices in the old District Court building have been condemned as hazardous. He said new temporary offices have been located in the Anduze Building, near the Legislature. He successfully passed an amendment for $72,000 rent for the new offices. Their old quarters are expected to be ready within a year, he said.
The Financial Services Act passed unanimously. Berry, the bill's sponsor, said the governor had not objected to the bill, but to two amendments attached to it which he found onerous. Tacked to the bill was a controversial amendment, sponsored by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, mandating the V.I. Water and Power Authority to negotiate and enter into a power purchase agreement with a company that would invest heavily in the island of St. Croix. (See "Wapa Head, Legislators Discuss Amendment").
"The bill prohibits WAPA from utilizing the competitive bidding procedure established by law to secure services at the lowest cost," Turnbull said in his veto message. "In addition, the bill would prohibit certain power producers from participating in the process."
Turnbull also blasted another amendment to the bill that exempted all property covered by an approved Affordable Housing Development Agreement from payment of real property taxes. Berry said the bill had contained no appropriations so Turnbull could not have line-item vetoed it. The amendments are removed from the current bill, she said.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was delighted to have his vandalism bill passed. The bill provides an increase in fines for school vandalism and to authorize those fines to an account to help defray the cost of repairs.
Many observers have objected to the bill because they say the violators will never be caught, and if they were, they wouldn't have money for the fines. Sen. Craig Barshinger had a novel take on that Friday. He said, "I think the bill represents a turning point; it shows we are not feeling sorry for the violators. We are taking them to task."
The senators also resoundingly passed Donastorg's animal cruelty bill. A full account will be in Saturday's Source.
Resolutions commending Condoleeza Rice on her appointment as Secretary of State and another proposed by Sen. Louis Hill expressing opposition to closure of any additional fishing grounds were also passed.
Figueroa-Serville successfully passed a resolution honoring and commending all members of the V.I. Army and Air National Guard who have served for the last 32 years. As Figueroa-Serville was addressing the body, he paused, near tears. "Please excuse me, but this is my very first piece of legislation," he said. Berry, shedding her presidential stance, became a mother hen. "Take your time,'' she said, "this is a momentous occasion."
The Senate also confirmed the nominations of Col. Eddy Charles as Acting Adjutant General (see "Charles Confirmed to National Guard Post"), Ann Gruver Barnard to the Board of Psychology, Caroline Polydore-Simon to the board of directors for WTJX, Public Television and Kenneth Herman to the V.I. Horse Racing Commission.
All senators attended the session, except Hill who was excused because of a death in the family.

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