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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, July 20, 2024


Seeking to bring the V.I. Senate in line with many legislatures throughout the United States, Senate President Vargrave Richards has introduced a bill that would make the job of senator part time and reduce salaries by more than half.
The proposal is to be heard in the Senate Government Operations Committee, chaired by Sen. Gregory Bennerson, a co-sponsor of Richards’ bill. Richards said his proposal would limit the time the Senate meets to 90 consecutive days annually and reduce senators’ $65,000-a-year salaries to $30,000. Additionally, it would withhold per diem payment to senators who fail to attend required committee hearings.
Support for the bill is varied. Along with co-sponsor Bennerson, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg has endorsed the proposal. Sen. Allie-Allison Petrus, who will not be seeking another term, said he would support the measure if there are public hearings.
Sens. Roosevelt David and Lorraine Berry said they don’t support the bill.
"I do think it’s something that has to be looked at," Petrus said. "But a decision has to be made with public input. We should respect the people who put us here."
Donastorg, who has pushed legislation that seeks to reduce the number of senators in the Legislature, said he fully supports Richards. At Donastorg's urging, Delegate to Congress Donna Christian Christensen has pushed a bill through the House that amends the Revised Organic Act to allow the local government to decide the number of senators. The bill is expected to pass the U.S. Senate soon.
Upon doing so, a referendum will be held during the Nov. 7 general election giving voters the option to reduce the number of senators from 15 to 11, 15 to 9 or retain the status quo. Donastorg maintains that reducing the Senate to nine members will save some $12 million per two-year term, an attractive proposition to many considering the territory’s economic woes.
"This institution should serve by example," Donastorg said. "Let's put the people of the Virgin Islands above self."
Berry said that Richards’ bill, the coming referendum and the possibility of a constitutional convention would be too confusing for the public.
David, meanwhile, said he is against Richards’ proposal "because you wouldn’t get the best people."
Richards said that unlike Donastorg’s bill, which he supports, his doesn’t require a change to the Organic Act. And while he couldn’t give exact figures, he said his bill would cut the cost of the Senate even further.
"There is no question in my mind that it would realize a massive savings in the expenditure of the Legislature," he said.
As for critics who say the proposal is just an election year gimmick, Richards said he first announced it three months ago while speaking to the V.I. Bar Association, but the media didn’t pick it up.
"Whether it came on Saturday, Sunday or Monday is not the issue," he said. "It has nothing to do with the timing."
Richards said there are 40 states that have part-time legislatures "that have worked efficiently."
Further, he noted that V.I. senators, who represent approximately 110,000 residents, are the third highest-paid legislators under the American flag behind California and New York. He said senators in Puerto Rico, home to some 4 million people, earn $40,000 a year.
In those places, "lawmakers serve constituencies in the millions, compared to Virgin Islands senators who represent approximately 100,000 people."
"I believe that we can accomplish the same level of work on a part-time basis as we do now," Richards said, "and it will set apart those truly committed to their constituents rather than to their own special interests."
Molly Morris contributed to this report.

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