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HomeNewsArchivesSenate Puts the Brakes on GERS Reform Bill, Two Others

Senate Puts the Brakes on GERS Reform Bill, Two Others

Dec. 12, 2006 — Senators cut Tuesday's full legislative session short by voting to send three major reform bills back to committee for further consideration. After the meeting, several senators said they were "simply not ready" to vote on the bills, which, in some cases, drastically alter the structure of some government departments and agencies and make revisions to several of the territory's laws.
The motion to send the bills back to committee, brought forth by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., was made immediately after the meeting was called to order, spurring five minutes of raucous debate amongst majority and minority senators. The minority prevailed, however, in a close 7-6 vote.
Voting in favor of the motion were Sens. Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie R. Richards and White. Voting against were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Craig W. Barshinger, Roosevelt C. David, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Neville James and Ronald E. Russell.
Majority Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion and Louis P. Hill were absent.
After the meeting, White said he had several objections to the three bills, including the fact that senators did not have time to review changes recently made to the Omnibus Authorization Act, or new amendments to a Government Employees Retirement System reform proposal.
Over the past two weeks, the GERS proposal, first sent down in July by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, has been heavily opposed by several local organizations. After listening to testimony presented by representatives from AARP V.I. and the Advocates for the Preservation of GERS, senators revised Turnbull's bill and circulated an amendment in the nature of a substitute late last week (See "Community Groups Urge Caution Over GERS Reform Bill").
Another set of changes to the bill were handed out a few minutes before Tuesday's session began, generating concerns for several senators who said they would not have enough time to peruse the new draft before a final vote was taken.
Speaking after the meeting, Davis explained that senators were particularly opposed to the fact that a separate bill calling for the issuance of up to $600 million worth of pension obligation bonds — which is currently pending in the Committee of the Whole — was tacked onto the new proposal.
Senators have continuously backed the pension bond proposal, which would be used to pay down a portion of the retirement system's more than $1 billion unfunded liability. However, after Tuesday's meeting, many said they were "disappointed" that they would have to vote in favor of the entire GERS bill in order for the bonds to be floated.
To accompany the new changes, more public meetings would have to be called, Davis added. "We're passing changes that have an impact on members of the community," he said. "I've gotten hundreds of phone calls already from people who oppose the bill as it's currently written. So, we would have to have a whole new set of meetings to discuss whatever is now included in the bill and see how those provisions impact the community."
White added that circulating a new copy of the GERS bill moments before the meeting began was "unfair" to retirees.
Davis and White also spoke out against the Omnibus Authorization and Government Reform and Modernization acts, which were also scheduled to be considered on Tuesday.
Both bills are voluminous and were heavily scrutinized in meetings held over the past two weeks by senators and community members. However, senators said that as of 11 a.m. Tuesday, a new draft of the 247-page Omnibus bill was still being put together.
"The Legislature now needs to finish, go meet Santa and consider these things next year, when a new Senate convenes, and more hearings can be held on St. Croix and St. John," White said.
White added that the Omnibus bill was being used as a "refuse receptacle" where all proposals currently pending before the Legislature were "being dumped."
"It's a bus without tires," he joked after the meeting.
Joining in the discussion, Nelson added that senators were "acting responsibly" by sending the bills back to the committee of jurisdiction (since no specific committees were mentioned in the motion, the bills will revert to their respective committees of jurisdiction if they are re-introduced during the next Legislature).
"I wasn't going to vote on these proposals anyway, so I'm glad the meeting was cut short," he said.
When asked if the bills will reappear on the floor during the 27th Legislature, Richards (the incoming Senate president), said it would be "premature" to comment on the matter.
"I'm not in a hurry to see them [the bills]," he said, "but whether or not they will be disposed of next year is a matter that will be decided by the people's majority caucus."
Richards added that the new Senate would have to sit down with the incoming administration to "see how to proceed on these issues."
Berry, who sponsored the Government Reform Act, left the Senate floor as soon as the vote was taken and could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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