Gov. Albert Bryan signed a slew of bills this week, including legislation giving $5 million in taxpayer dollars to the tax-break granting entity University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park to lend out to tax-break recipients.
Legislation cited by the Fitch Ratings bond rating agency as likely to push the Water and Power Authority into insolvency was enacted over Bryan’s veto this week too. Bill 34-0021, now Act 8471, sets the Public Services Commission as a semiautonomous agency; mandates the regulation of the Waste Management Authority by the PSC; and authorizes the Water and Power Authority to hire a turnaround management company. Fitch Ratings issued a negative ratings watch for WAPA, indicating it was concerned the legislation could make WAPA less able to pay lenders. According to a statement from Fitch, the move “reflects the ongoing prospects for additional governmental oversight of WAPA, which could adversely affect operating performance and increase the authority’s vulnerability to default.”
Paying Back 2011 Paycuts
Bryan signed legislation appropriating roughly $38 million to pay back government employees hit by 8 percent pay cuts in 2011. The Legislature enacted the cuts as an emergency austerity measure during the V.I. government’s fiscal crisis in the wake of the 2009 worldwide financial crisis. In 2016, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the pay cut violated the U.S. Constitution’s contracts clause but did not set a timeline for repayment.
In his transmittal letter to Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, Bryan thanked the Legislature for approving the measure, which his administration proposed. But he said it still needed amendments to cover all the employees affected by those cuts.
Bryan also signed legislation appropriating $4 million to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority to support home buying loans and $2 million for roadwork on the Leonardo “Nardo” Trotman Drive. But he said this too needed amendments. Bryan said it needs “to set a time frame within which to repay the construction loans in the event that the construction is not completed or delayed and extended over many years.” And he said the bill removed the statutory cap on the size of home loans. “Unless it was the intent of the Thirty-Fourth Legislature to not place a cap on home improvement loans, amendment of this section is much needed,” Bryan said.
Another significant piece of legislation signed this week overhauls the territory’s oversight of timeshare operations.
“After several prior efforts to implement a Code specifically related to Timeshare sales, management, operations, and property taxation were unsuccessful, we are pleased that this collaborative effort between the Executive and the Legislative branches, and the Timeshare Industry has completed the task,” Bryan wrote in his transmittal letter.
More Bills Enacted
Bryan also signed legislation to:
– Clean up V.I. law on the marriage of those under age 18. Such marriages are already illegal in the territory but one passage of law still refers to a judge’s role in deciding whether to allow them.
– Extend the COVID-19 State of Emergency to January 10, 2022.
– Allow the Office of the Lt. Governor to foreclose on properties for which the property taxes and public sewer fees are delinquent.
– Enacts the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act, to provide for the management of electronic legal documents to guarantee the trustworthiness of and continuing access to governmental legal material.
– Increase the aggregate amount that a surviving spouse may receive from debtors upon the death of the creditor and increase the amount of debt a debtor must pay the survivors of a decedent creditor not less than 30 days after the creditor’s death from not more than $5,000 to not more than $10,000.
– Require parents convicted of child neglect to attend counseling.
– Grant seniors and the terminally ill preference in civil actions. There can be long delays in civil actions, which could deprive seniors and the terminally ill of the opportunity of access to justice.
– Require fuel tax to be remitted when the fuel enters the territory.
A second bill enacted by the Legislature over Bryan’s veto reduces the size of the WAPA board from the current nine members down to seven and reduces the number of members needed for a quorum from five to four. It also requires members to reside in the districts they represent and all non-government members to have formal education in any one of several fields, from energy production to information technology.
During the recent session where the Legislature approved all of the above items, it also approved a bill to transfer the former Cancryn school property to the Port Authority to expand its transshipment and maritime activities. That measure is not mentioned in the governor’s transmittal letter or press release.