Jan. 27, 2003 – The 25th Legislature has led the public to expect great things of it, and the public — in a number of demonstrations, in letters to newspapers, and on talk shows — has responded with carefully measured enthusiasm, letting the body know it will be carefully monitored for all those campaign promises.
At the League of Women Voters biennial luncheon for new Legislatures Monday at Palms Court Harborview Hotel, eight senators spelled out for the organization's members where they individually and collectively are headed. To the surprise of no one, the territory's problematic economy, technological advancement and educational reform were frequently mentioned issues, but there were several forays into unexpected areas, too.
The discussion was moderated by Erva Denham, league president, who with a smile expressed the hope that the 25th Legislature and the league could work in tandem for the next two years. A timekeeper was there to keep each speaker to four minutes, and they stuck to it.
Leading off, Senate President David Jones said the territory's Workers Compensation Act needs to be strengthened and that this could yield "significant dollars." He said a national conference on the workplace insurance program will be held in the territory in the next few weeks.
He found his audience all ears when he suggested the league use its influence with the Historic Preservation Office to get permission for the Legislature to build an addition to the onetime military barracks and later high school that it calls home.
The remark was met with wonder and mild laughter, after which Jones was told his time was up. "Yes," he said, "on that note I'm through."
Freshman Sen. Louis Hill stated his determination to rehabilitate the deteriorating Fort Christian Museum and turn it into a revenue-generating facility. However, he said his first priority is to get legislation creating a Waste Management Authority to the Senate floor, something he estimated would happen in mid-March after Sonia Nelthropp, Public Works Department wastewater specialist, makes a few changes in an existing proposal. Hill said the cost to residents will likely be about a penny per pound, and that hearings will be held to educate the public.
Applause for peace
Freshman Sen. Ronald Russell silenced the room with his announcement: "I want to ask the league's cooperation in supporting a resolution against the war." The silence soon gave way to applause, the most heard during the luncheon.
Russell said he believes the territory should send such a resolution to Washington, D.C., to go on record. Later, he said he didn't know how much support he would have from his colleagues, but he has drafted the resolution and will bring it to the floor soon. Should the United States declare war on Iraq, he said, it could have a devastating effect on the V.I. economy, especially in the area of tourism.
Russell, new chair of the Education and Youth Committee, said he has plans for restructuring of Education Department and reviving a mothballed bill giving the Board of Education more clout in the governance of the department.
Just for fun, Russell couldn't resist mentioning an idea he put forth on the floor at the 25th Legislature's first session: "And I still think we could move the capital to St. Croix."
Several senators touched on two issues dear to the heart of the League of Women Voters — the adoption of a comprehensive land and water use plan and the convening of a new constitutional convention. These perennial issues somehow have gotten lost along the legislative way, but this year Hill, Russell and freshman colleague Shawn-Michael Malone have endorsed both and come up with plans to put them in motion — with the strong backing of Jones on the constitutional convention.
Sen. Lorraine Berry received an enthusiastic hand for advocating the formation of a Tourism Authority. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, who vetoed such an authority two years ago, said in his State of the Territory speech that he favors "the establishment of a tourism authority in which all stakeholders are equally and fairly represented."
This seemed to signal that he would continue to oppose an entity in which the private sector holds majority control, which was the case with the bill supported by the local chambers of commerce and tourism associations that was passed by the 22nd Legislature.
Berry also said she would resubmit her Technology Enterprise Act bill created in the 23rd Legislature to bring the territory into the 21st century on e-commerce.
Applause for business-like approach
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, new Finance Committee chair, expressed wonder at how the government can have a $35 million surplus, which the governor in his State of the Territory address said was true of the General Fund at the end of Fiscal Year 2001, and still have $1 billion indebtedness. "It's time the government is operated like a business," he said, drawing applause second only to that for Russell's anti-war resolution.
Sen. Roosevelt David took pride in saying that $35 million surplus was during the 23rd Legislature's regime, when the lawmakers drafted the Financial Accountability Act. He also noted that the GARVEE bonds that he heralded throughout the legislative procedure are moving ahead getting capital projects moving.
Freshman Sen. Luther Renee, new chair of the Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee, expressed definite ideas about the economy. He stressed St. Thomas's tourism economy and said St. Croix needs to develop technologically, bring in financial services, and develop the agriculture and fishing industries. He said in wonder, "There is no one in charge of the fisheries in the Department of Agriculture."
The last lawmaker to speak was now-minority Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who, as if on cue, became controversial. With his trademark grin and slight pause, he barreled right ahead.
"I don't wait to see how the wind is blowing before I speak my mind," he said. "What are you for? I'm all for Home Depot — I've got my hard hat and shovel." Then White listed Botany Bay, Carifest and other projects which he said were developed without a land and water use plan.
Pausing for a moment, he added: "And I'm all for the VLT's . They will bring millions to the territory."
No senator directly mentioned crime or health issues. Jones said that Sen. Douglas Canton, new Health Committee chair, couldn't make the meeting.
Venerable teacher Ruth Thomas spoke up after the senators finished. She told Jones with regard to the St. Thomas Legislature structure: "Please do not touch that building. We would like to see it become a part of the island's historic trust. You could use the land by the lieutenant governor's office where the old Apollo Theater used to be for your Senate building."
She waited for a second, then, generating much laughter, added: "Come to think of it, if you move the capital to St. Croix, we could have our building back."
Jones clarified that his intent is to "not deface or modify the Senate building in any way. We are talking about added a second story to the Legislature Annex in back of the main building." He said the Journal, Post-Audit and Legal Counsel's offices are desperate for more room.
A bit of presumption for public servants
League member Rosalie Simmonds-Ballentine wound up the presentation with a list of do's and don'ts for the senators, which she admitted might "be a bit presumptuous." Reminding the senators that they are "public servants,"she reeled off a list which included:
– Don't authorize unfunded mandates by appropriating funds for popular projects unless a realistic source is available. (This is a concern the governor expressed repeatedly and to no avail in t
he 24th Legislature.)
– Don't borrow from one fund to meet a more popular, immediate project. Don't use funds such as that of the Government Employees Retirement System to balance the budget.
– Do realize we are a country of laws and that legislative immunity should not be used as a cloak to do what you want to do without following the requirements of the law.
– Do remember oversight does not mean management. Respect the separation of powers, and allow the executive departments and agencies to perform their functions. (This, too, has been mentioned more than once by the governor.)
Although the luncheon ending on a congenial note, no senators were observed rushing to Ballentine for a copy of the do's and don'ts. However, Denham said that's okay; she is mailing one to each lawmaker. Denham said she was heartened by Monday's remarks, even those of White, who customarily has been at odds with the league.
"He had a good point asking people 'What are you for?'" she said. "It's something I often wonder when people are against so many things."
Sens. Berry, David, Donastorg, Hill, Jones, Renee, Russell and White attended the meeting. Sens. Canton, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Norman Jn Baptiste, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Malone and Raymond "Usie" Richards didn't attend.
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