Paid, elected, V.I. government officials, the governor’s cabinet members and judges will be up for pay raises every four years, with pay set by a temporary compensation committee, if a bill approved in committee Wednesday becomes law.
The Government Services, Consumer and Veterans Affairs Committee also sent on a bill to give traffic fine income directly to the V.I. Police Department, Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the courts, instead of funneling it to the government’s general coffers.
The compensation commission bill "attempts to depoliticize the issue of compensation for public officials," its sponsor Sen. Positive Nelson said. "It doesn’t matter if you are trying to increase your salary by 5 cents or $5, there will always be an appearance of conflict," he said.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes and other committee members recalled controversy over big pay increases for some in Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s cabinet, in the midst of a budget crisis last year. (See Legislature Rejects Mapp Nominees Over Pay Increases in Related Links below) The Legislature and Mapp administration ultimately came to an agreement over the nominees’ salaries.
"Many of the salaries doled out in the current administration weren’t what many of us expected given the financial situation we currently are in," Sanes said. "This bill was created to perhaps alleviate some of those concerns," he said.
The Senate came under intense criticism in 2007 and 2008 for quietly enacting very large pay increases for itself and larger ones for the governor and lieutenant governor at the end of a late night session at the end of 2006. (See: Still No Senate Action to Repeal Unpopular Pay Raises in Related Links below)
If it comes to pass, the commission would be formed in January 2017, with nine members: three appointed by the president of the Legislature; three by the governor; and three by the V.I. Supreme Court’s chief justice. It would be a temporary commission, disbanded after it makes its recommendations.
Regular government employees would not be affected, only political appointees, elected officials and judges.
The Senate would still have to ratify any increases, because giving over that authority would violate the federal Revised Organic Act of 1954, Nelson said.
The second measure, proposed by Sanes, would automatically allocate 60 percent of traffic fines to the V.I. Police Department, giving it an institutional incentive to more strictly enforce traffic laws and giving it a new, stable source of revenue.
Another 20 percent would go to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and 20 percent of "fixed, nondiscretionary fines" would go to the courts. Since portions of fines are not fixed and are discretionary, there is a small portion of fines that may still go to the government’s General Fund.
When the bill was first heard in committee in January, Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Dunston and Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge both suggested limiting the court’s portion to fixed, nondiscretionary fines. If the courts received more money when they imposed harsher fines, it would appear to create a conflict of interest by giving the courts a financial incentive to impose harsher penalties, they argued.
In January, Dunston said he would "conservatively estimate the amount of these collections to exceed $2 million dollars per year."
Both measures were approved without opposition and sent on for further consideration in the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
The committee also heard from the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs. DLCA Commissioner Devin Carrington told senators the agency is conducting a study of gas prices in the territory to see if there is any illegal collusion among retailers in keeping prices high.
Gasoline prices should become more transparent later this month, because the former Hovensa fuel rack will reopen, and the wholesale prices will be made public again, as they were in years past, he said.
Carrington also spoke about the condition of the tent-covered vendor’s plaza in Charlotte Amalie, something he has spoken about wanting to improve since his confirmation hearings in early 2015. He urged senators to move the plaza out from under the authority of the V.I. Historic Preservation Committee, over to Sports Parks and Recreation, and to appropriate funding to help renovate it, possibly with semi-permanent vendor’s booths, similar to those at Subbase.
Laurie Chapman, president of the V.I. Vendors Association, which oversees the plaza, said they want to put a permanent roof over the plaza. The association has a $100,000 block grant from DLCA but needs more. She said there should be another $276,000 in vendors’ fees deposited in a cleaning fund since 1992, when the plaza was set up, that could help with the plan.