Lawmakers OK Agricultural Bill After Debate Over Funding

A local favorite, Carambolas, are ripe and ready for use at the Sejah Farm VI market. (Source photo by Linda Morland)
A local favorite, Carambolas, ripe and ready for use at the Sejah Farms V.I. market. (Source photo by Linda Morland)

All 15 senators said they agreed with the intent of an agricultural bill, which directs a percentage of the government’s budget to support farming projects through the Department of Agriculture, but both the language of the bill and an amendment offered were cause for concern for a handful of senators.

Ultimately, Bill 33-0123 passed during Thursday’s Senate hearing, but Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory cited a few problems with the bill during a two-minute debate with Sen. Allison DeGazon, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Her first major opposition came from an amendment DeGazon attempted to make which would have allocated additional funding from the executive budget to the Department of Agriculture.

“The intent is and has always been to appropriate more money to the Agriculture budget,” DeGazon replied. “What we would like to do is increase the amounts that are sent forth on the increments that are written into the bill. It is conscionable because we will sit with our colleagues and determine and follow the bill if enacted. So my entire plea today is that whatever the amount is that is appropriated, which has been more or less $4 million historically, to get more money into the Agriculture budget so all the bills that have been adopted, we can move on the projects and take Agriculture to the next level.”

But during Frett-Gregory’s rebuttal she said she could understand the original apportionment of a percentage of funds but the “amendment creates another additional amount of money on top of Agriculture.” She said if the bill says a certain percentage of the funds be allocated than it should just stick with that.

The allocation of funds, according to the bill, is based on a sliding scale. In the first three years 0.25 percent of the local funds will be allocated to the Department of Agriculture. In the next consecutive two years an increase to 0.50 percent will be allocated, and every successive year after the initial five years one percent will be allocated.

The amendment failed to pass when taken to a vote.

It was not just the amendment that Frett-Gregory and other senators found issue with, but some also challenged the bill itself.

“We are tying our hands if we say 0.25 percent; we should have said ‘up to 0.25 percent,’ because then it allows this legislative body to make decisions as it relates to the projects,” Frett-Gregory said. “‘Up to’ also allows for the Legislature to determine whether we can or cannot afford to allocate the percentage enforced in any particular year. Because there are times when revenues are up and there are times when revenues are down. Also are we insinuating that the Department of Agriculture will always have projects? Are we suggesting that?”

The bill was voted on favorably by Sens. DeGazon, Alicia Barnes, Oakland Benta, Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis Jr., Stedmann Hodge Jr., Myron Jackson, Javan James, Steven Payne Sr. and Athneil Thomas. Sens. Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens and Janelle Sarauw voted ‘no,’ and Sen. Kurt Vialet did not vote.

The bill will now be forwarded to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. for final approval.

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