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Amendments, Appropriations the Order of the Day at Legislative Session

Aug. 23, 2006–Tempers flared during this week's full legislative session, as senators argued over a slew of amendments added to a rezoning bill sent to the floor for consideration. Many of the amendments attached to the bill earmarked, in some cases, millions of dollars for various government departments, community projects and organizations, while others sought to clarify or revise current local laws.
In the middle of Tuesday's debate, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson added more fuel to the fire by bringing forth a motion to take legal action against Gov. Charles W. Turnbull for not appointing members to the Wage Board, a seven-member body that helps to evaluate and set wages for local employees based on their classification.
During the meeting, Nelson cited several reasons for introducing the motion, including the need to re-establish the board, which has essentially been defunct for the past 10 years. While Nelson has repeatedly called for Turnbull to appoint individuals to the board, no nominations have been sent down from the executive branch for at least the past eight years.
Nelson also said he was responding a suit filed against the Legislature by Turnbull late last month. According to legal documents, the suit asks the court to declare "unconstitutional" a law enacted last year by the Senate to establish a Supreme Court on St. Croix.
Since senators voiced no objections to the motion, it passed without a vote.
Senators also acted quickly on a bill that primarily targets pre-employment "dispute resolution agreements" – or arbitration agreements – designed to "take away an employee's right to a fair jury trial" should an employee chose to sue an employer for unfair labor practices.
The bill, which stirred up much concern for members of the local business community, had been pending in the Rules Committee until early last month, when it was forwarded–without amendments–to the full Senate body for consideration.
Sen. Ronald E. Russell, the bill's sponsor, had previously stated he would be introducing amendments to clarify some of the language in the bill to make it inclusive of all contracts, instead of primarily applying to arbitration agreements. However, Russell's amendment was not brought to the floor during Tuesday's session. The bill passed without it, garnering nine votes in favor.
Instead, Russell introduced an amendment to the rezoning bill that allows the commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs to determine the prices and quantities at which wholesalers and retailers can sell certain commodities–including food, general supplies and gasoline.
"This amendment is giving Consumer Affairs the authority to set price controls, most especially on retailers in the territory who are charging exorbitant rates for gasoline," he explained.
While Russell's amendment passed without much discussion, senators had other concerns about an amendment introduced by Sen. Louis P. Hill, which appropriates approximately $18.4 million for the Education and Human Services departments.
During the meeting, Hill said the appropriations have been extracted from a $34.4 million supplemental budget bill submitted earlier this week by Turnbull. He described the two appropriations as "critical," since they will cover the cost of various federal programs within the two departments until a third-party fiduciary is put in place and Education can once again receive federal funds.
The measure also appropriates $600,000 to the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency to upgrade local emergency operation centers and armories.
The amendment was loudly opposed by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who said that the amendment has to be "carefully considered" before a vote can be taken. He called Hill's attempt to introduce the amendment "disingenuous" and a "fly-by-night tactical assault and ambush" on the Legislature.
Despite Jn Baptiste's complaints, however, the amendment was adopted, with Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Neville James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie R. Richards, Russell and Celestino A. White Sr. voting in favor.
Jn Baptiste and Nelson voted against the amendment, while Sen. Craig W. Barshinger abstained.
Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion was absent.
Another notable amendment, introduced by David, appropriates an unspecified amount of money from the General Fund for the creation of a public access road to Lindqvist Beach on St. Thomas. During the meeting, David said that the road would give residents "immediate" access to the beach while the government negotiates the purchase of the entire property.
David said Lindqvist's developers are "amenable" to the idea and that an appraiser will determine the cost of the road.
Present during Tuesday's session were Barshinger, Berry, David, Davis, Donastorg, Figueroa-Serville, Hill, James, Jn Baptiste, Malone, Nelson, Richards, Russell and White.
Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion was absent.

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