July 11, 2005 — A two-day regular Senate session started off positively on Monday, with the body quickly approving the nominations of Gerville R. Larsen and Robert G. Moron to the Historic Preservation Commission, and Robert O'Connor to the V.I. Port Authority Governing Board.
The meeting then continued with senators considering overriding vetoes by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on two measures to provide money for disenfranchised union workers and retirees.
The first motion, introduced by Sen. Roosevelt David, addressed an appropriation that was supposed to have been made by the government for union workers in the amount of $10 million for services rendered and not paid for.
"The governor already signed off on these contracts," said David. "All were asking him for now is that he honor the deal that he made to pay these individuals . A deal is a deal."
David was angered when reconsideration of the bill did not garner enough votes to override Turnbull's veto, stating that the Legislature is "hypocritical" when it comes to talking about community support because it does not take action on such measures.
Voting against the bill were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie R. Richards, and Celestino White Sr.
Those in support of the bill were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Ronald Russell, Neville James, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Pedro M. Encarnacion, Louis P. Hill, and David.
Figueroa-Serville also asked for the reconsideration of a bill designed to appropriate $900,000 to retirees after a settlement made in 1998 for money owed to them by the government.
"Approximately 300 retirees were left out of the negotiation process when the settlement was made," Figueroa-Serville said. "I am campaigning to bring their suffering to an end."
The bill was unanimously passed into law at the end of Mondays session. The $900,000 for the retirees bill will be appropriated from the Union Arbitration Award and Government Employees Increment Fund.
"This fund specifically sets aside money to settle cases that the government is liable for," Figueroa-Serville said, adding that only the Legislature has the authority to release money from the fund.
Reinstatement of Wage Board
A bill to petition the governor to submit appointments of individuals for a V.I. Wage Board established under the Labor Department met with controversy on Monday as James took a stand against Turnbull.
"This bill is clearly well intentioned, but were talking about a negligent governor one who doesnt want to work," James said. "We could pass this legislation unanimously but the governor will not do anything about it."
As a result, James declined voting on the measure, spurring similar comments from other senators.
Russell, for example, said that the Legislature was at a "crossroads" and "had to distance themselves from poor leadership, while Richards said that he would be "pleasantly surprised if the appointments were made."
The bill, primarily sponsored by Nelson, calls for Turnbull to appoint seven members to a wage board designed to:
— proscribe a minimum wage rate for all employment classes;
— make regular investigations and studies of wages, hours, and working conditions within the territory;
— classify each industry and occupation into classes of employment.
"This is already a law, but nothing has happened for the last 13 years," Berry said. "We cannot do these things without a wage board."
Malone, who claimed to be "particularly excited about the bill," helped to influence the decision of other senators by asking them to look at the way the youth of the territory are living.
"Their families can't provide for them," Malone said. "We need to increase the minimum wage by at least a dollar there are 14,348 people in the territory that are only making $5.15 an hour. That represents 32.1 percent of the private sector, including those individuals in sales, fishing, and farming industries. How can they take care of their children?"
The bill was adopted by the body, with support from all senators, except Jn. Baptiste, who was absent for the first half of the session.
Increased Penalties for Littering, Abandoning Vehicles, and Illegally Operating Auto Repair Businesses
Still campaigning for the youth of St. Croix, Figueroa-Serville posed heavy opposition to a bill introduced to the Rules Committee in early June to increase the penalty for littering, abandoned vehicles, and operating an automotive service or repair business without a license (See "Sen. Malone Calls for Increased Fines for Car Dumping.")
"I can't agree with shutting down those neighborhood repair shops, which have the potential to help future entrepreneurs," Figueroa-Serville said. "We always talk about helping the youth enter the work force now we're castigating them for operating these businesses without offering them any other options?"
Figueroa-Serville added that extensive conversations with St. Croix youth had made him worried about this part of the bill. "The young people have come up to me themselves and asked why we're taking away the little bit of money out of their pockets," Figueroa-Serville said. "They're asking what else they're going to do turn to selling drugs?"
Having similar concerns, Richards asked for the section to be eliminated or amended, or else he would also not be able to vote on the bill as a whole.
To appease his colleagues, Russell pointed out that this section had already been amended, with language changed to prohibit only those businesses who engage in automotive repair without a license. This does not include neighborhood enterprises which provide smaller services to the community, like washing cars.
Upon hearing this amendment, Figueroa-Serville retracted his opposition to the bill, saying that the removal of the word "service" from this section was a "sign of faith," which will allow the territory's youth to continue with some of their endeavors.
Malone, the bill's primary sponsor, also added amendments to clarify language in the bill, providing for:
— a fine of $100 to $1,000 for each littering offense;
— a fine of $1,000 to $2,500 for abandoned vehicles;
— individuals who have been found guilty of abandoning vehicles may also be prohibited from registering or licensing a vehicle in the future, or renewing their driver's license.
White added an amendment on behalf of VIPD Commissioner Elton Lewis to decrease tint visibility for cars from 70 percent to 35 percent.
The bill was adopted as amended, with Sens. Davis, Encarnacion, Malone, Nelson, Richards, Russell, and White offering support.
Berry, David, Donastorg, Hill, Jn. Baptiste, and Figueroa-Serville did not support the adoption of the bill. James did not vote.
Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged Special Fund
Amendments made to a bill appropriating $500,000 to the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged Special Fund sailed through the Senate on Monday, with legislators emphasizing the need for health care funding for the elderly.
"When this measure was first introduced in the executive budget, it was vetoed because the governor vetoed the whole budget," Davis, the bill's sponsor, said. "This bill is to make sure that this doesn't happen again to make sure that our seniors get the care that they need." Davis added that in 1990, 16,128 residents in the territory were over the age of 60, and 10,380 were over the age of 65.
"At any given time, only 375 of them are served by the Department of Human Services we need this mo
ney because the seniors need medicine, and the Department wants to provide special treatment for those with chronic diseases," Davis said. (See "Committee Approves Funds for Drugs for the Elderly.")
To help with these issues, Davis proposed that:
— the eligibility age for the pharmaceutical program be reduced from 65 to 60this mirrors federally funded senior programs, and authorizes the department to provide wellness and chronic disease education;
— "indigent" seniors living in senior citizen homes receive benefits under the program since many of these individuals have little or no income for medicine;
— the maximum eligible income for a single person under the program be raised from $14,000 to $18,000, while the income of a married couple under the program will also be raised from $24,000 to $30,000;
— the copayment for seniors with multiple prescriptions be reduceda $6 copayment for the first prescription will be instituted, but additional copayments will be reduced to $1.
The bill was adopted as amended with unanimous support.
The full Senate attended the meeting.
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