July 20, 2006 – After postponing debate on half of the bills scheduled for Thursday night's agenda, the members of the Rules Committee spent almost four hours discussing two measures that seek to reestablish the now defunct Taxicab Commission, and to place limitations on couples seeking a divorce.
However, at the end of the meeting, no action was taken on either issue, and all bills were held in committee at the discretion of the chairman, Sen. Ronald E. Russell.
At the beginning of the meeting, Russell said he wanted to address statements made on various radio programs about the intent of a bill establishing covenant marriages – a voluntary legal agreement that requires couples to make "all reasonable efforts to keep marriage together" prior to seeking a divorce.
"This includes an agreement to seek marital counseling when the going gets tough," Russell said, explaining that various talk show hosts have said the bill "tries to legislate morality" – a claim he said is false.
"This bill is not a replacement for current marriage laws, but an option for those people who want to keep marriage on a high pedestal," Russell said. "It means that people would know that when they make a commitment to another person, that commitment should mean something. So it doesn't allow a couple to get out of marriage by filing divorce papers which say they're having irreconcilable differences."
According to the bill, couples who opt to file for a covenant marriage license have to sign an agreement stating that they that they would take all steps necessary to keep the marriage together and undergo pre-marital counseling before they are able to receive a marriage license. Once the agreement is signed, a divorce can only be granted when one or both spouses commit adultery, have been convicted of a felony or have committed domestic abuse.
The bill does have a loophole, however, and allows couples to dissolve the covenant marriage agreement if they both consent to do so.
"Given all that, I don't see this bill as a necessity," said Sen. Usie R. Richards. "It doesn't make the institution of marriage last longer or be stronger."
Richards said that the bill could have the same effect on the courts as mandatory sentencing, in that it limits a judge's ability to grant a divorce. "I'm still at a loss as to what to do with this bill," he said. "We need the input of the Superior Court because we're trying to put in place mandatory requirements for the separation of two people."
Russell, the bill's sponsor, said the committee would postpone voting on the bill until more public hearings are held on St. Croix and St. John to discuss the issue.
He made a similar decision on a bill that seeks to reinstate the Taxicab Commission, a seven-member body responsible for regulating the territory's taxi industry.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., has been a controversial issue since its inception. It received much opposition from testifiers during Thursday's meeting.
Andrew Rutnik, commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, said he was particularly opposed to reestablishing an organization that was "mired in corruption and inefficiency." He said that the Taxi Commission, which was dissolved seven years ago by the Legislature, was often unable to maintain a quorum and had issues with money mismanagement and missing medallions.
Rutnik said that reinstating the commission would only result in "indecision and turf wars."
After hearing testimony from Hotel and Tourism Association President Beverly Nicholson, along with various union officials and taxi representatives, senators decided that conducting a comprehensive study on the entire public transportation industry prior to passing the bill would be more effective.
Russell said a decision on the bill would be made after more public hearings were held on St. Croix and St. John.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Terrence Nelson, Russell and Richards.
Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion was absent.
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