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Busy Senate Schedule Includes Governor's New Property Tax Bill

Jan. 11, 2008 — After taking a break for the holidays, the Senate will be back in full swing over the next few weeks, convening for various committee hearings and two full days of session at the end of the month.
Two Committee of the Whole meetings are also scheduled for next Thursday and Friday, giving senators the chance to consider, among other things, a new property tax bill submitted two months ago by Gov. John deJongh Jr.
The governor's proposal sets up a multi-rate tax structure with four different property classes — a move deJongh has said would amount to smaller increases for residential-property owners. In the proposal, a separate tax rate is imposed for each of the four property classes, which are broken down into:
— unimproved non-commercial real property, to be taxed at a mill rate (tax per dollar of the assessed value) of 0.00495;
— residential real property to be taxed at a mill rate of 0.00377;
— commercial real property to be taxed at a mill rate of 0.00711; and
— time shares to be taxed at a mill rate of 0.01407.
To read about other sections of the tax bill, which also outlines new exemption rates, see "DeJongh Proposes New Property Tax Structure."
During the Committee of the Whole, senators are also expected to discuss a bill that calls for all meetings of the Witness Protection Board — a new government entity set up in the comprehensive crime bill introduced early last year by Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe — to be closed to the public. All board documents, except those turned over to the Legislature, will also be confidential, according to the bill.
A third bill — authorizing the Department of Property and Procurement to ratify a little over $4 million worth of purchase orders from V.I. Fire Services to various vendors — will also be up for consideration during the Committee of the Whole.
Senators are expected to go into full session Jan. 23 to consider the three bills. At that time, the Legislature's minority leader, Sen. Ronald E. Russell, is also expected to introduce a bill that implements a one-year freeze on levelized energy-adjustment clause (LEAC) rates and calls for the payment of all outstanding government debts owed to the V.I. Water and Power Authority.
The WAPA bill was originally drafted in amendment form and introduced by Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville during a session held early last month. It was shot down, however, by a majority of senators, along with another amendment that calls for the government to use $25 million from its coffers to pay off outstanding utility bills.
On Jan. 22, senators will also convene a full session to hear the governor's State of the Territory Address, which will be delivered at 7 p.m.
In the meantime, the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice — chaired by Sen. Carmen M. Wesselhoft — will meet Wednesday to consider a bill that would sever the Bureau of Corrections from the local Justice Department.
"My primary objective in holding this meeting is to discuss major reforms required at Corrections," Wesselhoft said in a recent news release. She added that the bill, sponsored by Sen. Alvin L. Williams, would "greatly improve" both agencies' operations, and would give the territory's attorney general more time to "focus on fighting crime and prosecuting criminals."
The committee will also take testimony from local and federal representatives — including Eric Balaban, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) National Prison Project — on issues affecting the Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix.
The ACLU and federal Justice Department have long spoken out against conditions in local prisons and the level of care given to the territory's population of mentally ill inmates. (See "National Public Radio Story: 'Seriously Mentally Ill People are Locked Away for Years in Prison.'")
The Senate's Finance Committee starts out the week with a meeting Tuesday. According to committee chairman Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, issues up for discussion include outstanding vendor payments owed by the Department of Education and a budget presentation from delegates to the Fifth Constitutional Convention.
Toward the end of the month, a number of nominees to various government boards and commissions will appear before the Senate's Rules and Judiciary Committee. During the meeting, which will be held on St. Croix, senators will also consider bills to:
— erect flashing yellow lights and speed-monitoring devices around school zones;
— petition the president to submit legislation to Congress mandating that V.I. residents be eligible to receive supplementary Social Security income;
— authorize the governor to negotiate the purchase or return of land that once housed the Donoe and Warren E. Brown housing communities;
— appropriate $400,000 to the Village Virgin Islands Partners in Recovery for the purchase of a shelter on St. Croix; and
— appropriate $870,473 from the Transportation Trust Fund to the Department of Public Works to repair specific roads on St. Croix.
All bills that clear the Rules Committee must also be approved by the full Senate body before being signed into law by the governor.
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