The V.I. Legislature gave final approval Tuesday to a territorywide ban on plastic grocery bags, sponsored by Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly. As it was requested by Gov. Kenneth Mapp as part of a broader plan to reduce garbage flowing to the territory’s overburdened landfills, it would appear likely Mapp will sign it into law.
As first written, the bill exempted certain "bio-degradable" bags that fragment into small pieces with exposure to sunlight. When it was first heard in committee, some testimony suggested that those bags were also bad for the environment, releasing toxic chemicals, and senators discussed amending it to prohibit all plastic bags and allowing only paper bags, which can be composted.
Rivera-O’Reilly offered an amendment Tuesday to remove that exemption and senators approved it unanimously.
Another amendment from Rivera-O’Reilly changed how any fines arising from noncompliance would be distributed, so that 75 percent of revenues, if any, would go to the V.I. Waste Management Authority and the rest to the government’s General Fund.
An amendment from Sen. Kurt Vialet delays the effective date to January 2017 and sets April 1, 2017, as the date at which fines may commence.
Another measure from Rivera-O’Reilly approved Tuesday exempts the territory from a ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for those who have been convicted but have completed their sentence on drug-related offenses. A federal law signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton bans food and income assistance for those convicted of drug-related felonies. The law allows states and localities to carve out local exceptions.
Senators passed a bill from Sen. Novelle Francis to allow police officers, corrections officers and firefighters to work an additional three years, until age 63. The measure may help reduce overtime, reduce staffing shortages and reduce costs to the government pension system, according to Francis and to Police Department and Fire Service testimony.
Under current law, every policeman, firefighter or prison guard retires automatically at age 55 but can apply to stay on until age 60 if they get an annual certification of health that they are physically and mentally able to continue in the position.
Francis’s bill would increase that to age 63. It also has a sunset provision, ending in 2021.
A measure from Sen. Clifford Graham will let the V.I. Water and Power Authority pay prevailing interest rates on customer deposits instead of the statutory 4.75 percent set in V.I. law since 1974.
Another bill approved Tuesday removes a statutory salary limit for the director of the Office of Film Promotion. The statutory ceiling of $20,000 was set in 1974. The job is currently empty but being performed by another employee of the Department of Tourism.
The Senate also passed bills to make the V.I. Cancer Registry conform with U.S. standard and to change the name of a recipient of Casino Control Revenue Fund monies from the Jobs for Virgin Islands Graduates to Jobs for American Graduates. Both changes were made to conform to federal reporting expectations.
A bill from Sen. Marvin Blyden to require the Sports, Parks and Recreation Department to post a listing of all vacant and occupied vendor spaces on its website was approved, with Sen. Jean Forde voting no. Forde said he did not see what the Legislature could do with the list or how it could be sure it was up to date.
The other bills discussed above were approved unanimously. All members were present.
The Legislature also approved six unfunded mandates, a nomination and an array of leases, zonings, permits and resolutions, discussed separately. (See Related Links)