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New Senators Get Crash Course in Lawmaking

Dec. 21, 2006 The four freshmen senators of the 27th Legislature – Sens.-elect Basil Ottley, James Webber III, Carmen Wesselhoft and Alvin Williams – went to school Thursday to learn how to do the jobs for which they were elected.
The bi-annual Pre-Legislative Conference, hosted by the 26th Legislature and chaired by Sen. President Lorraine Berry (in one of her last appearances as a senator), featured presentations from the experts in their fields, both legislative and other branches of government. There is a lot to learn.
The senators were taught the rudiments of how to conduct business for the next two years of their terms in office — or at least they learned where to go and who to ask. The various experts explained to the fledgling lawmakers the significance of the main legislative division and how to work within those offices to get results.
The conference room at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort was packed for the morning session with old and new faces, along with legislative staff and staff from sitting senators' offices. Re-elected Sen. Carlton Dowe and longtime lawmaker Sen. Celestino White Sr. wandered in and out during the morning. Sen. Usie Richards, president of the 27th Legislature attended the full session.
Post Auditor Claudette Watson-Anderson gave a rundown of the functions of her division. Post Audit, which operates under the Finance Committee, handles audits of executive and judicial branches of government (as directed by the Finance Committee) and analyzes every budget for every government agency.
Colette Monroe, chief of staff for Finance Committee Chair and Sen. Louis Hill, said in a phone conversation late Thursday that "the 2006 budget hearings were the best we have had for years, largely because of the work of the Post-audit division. She said they "went like clockwork."
Yvonne Tharpes, deputy legal counsel, went over some of the major points in drafting legislation, but said she would need more time. She said there will be a full-day seminar on the process in early February and encouraged all the senators-elect to attend.
Webber said later that he was looking forward to the seminar but wished the instructions had commenced earlier, altogether. "Now, we just have a couple weeks before we're sworn in, and that's not much time to digest all this."
Tharpes, the picture of patience in the legislative chambers, displayed that ability Thursday as she explained the multitudinous duties of her division. No law is enacted without the thorough investigation of the legal counsel's office.
She said, "We are the Legislature's legal firm, we function as your attorneys." Tharpes has a staff of five attorneys — three on St. Thomas and two on St. Croix. "When you want to create a law, you first put in a bill request (BR)," she said, adding, "we process more than 3,200 BRs alone each term."
She noted that in some stateside legislatures, senators are allowed only to submit BRs for a portion of their term; some are limited to only five. "Here, all senators have equal access to our office," she said. "Sometimes we have been accused of 'doing something for the majority only.'" "That would be stupid," she said. "Majorities can change overnight. We are bipartisan."
She said the BR's can request a legal opinion, an analysis, a subpoena, a lease, a government contract or any number of items. But, she said, the detail must be there. "What transpires between a senator and the legal counsel is protected by attorney-client relationship. It is confidential until a senator makes it public."
John Abramson, supervisor of elections and a licensed parliamentarian, opened up a few eyes to proper official conduct in the Legislature chambers. He quoted from Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure, a tome he knows intimately. However, Abramson pointed out, the Legislature has its own rules, some of which may supercede Mason's Manual.
Abramson was on the staff of several senators from 1986 through 1995. He is a certified parliamentarian, with degrees from the states.
Abramson started off with a bit of levity: "Don't do anything they [the sitting senators] do," he said.
On a serious note, he said, "Parliamentary procedures are the rules of the game of democracy." He gave the new lawmakers several tips on effective behavior. One rule of thumb, he noted, "It is the issue, not the person, under discussion."
Abramson discussed infractions that abound in many legislative sessions interruptions, rudeness and a lack of knowledge of how to proceed. "If you follow correct procedural behavior, the sessions could be quick, fast and effective."
He said many sessions and meetings allot 10 minutes to a speaker. "They should probably be five minutes, or even two," Abramson said.
"An amendment is the most dangerous motion that can be made," he said. "Pay attention to amendments; they can change the entire bill in front of you."
Delegate Donna Christensen said she was looking forward to working with the new Legislature and told the senators how they could effectively participate in discussions. "We want to know when you are coming to D.C.," she said. "The Congressional Black Caucus has panels you can sit in on at no charge."
Christensen gave an overview of her role in Congress as it relates to the local government, all three branches. She discussed progress made in 2006 on Medicaid, which she said was $2.5 million for 2006, with $5 million slated for next year. She has been trying for years to get the Medicaid cap lifted for the territory.
Christensen said with the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, she is optimistic that something may be done in the House Ways and Means Committee in terms of a technical amendment to counteract the provision that gives the IRS the right to audit tax returns of V.I. taxpayers as far back as they like. It is intrusive," she said, "and not fair. It has damaged the territory's Economic Development program."
Ottley, who has served two terms as Hill's chief of staff and worked previously for other senators, has a deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts of the Senate. However, he said, "You can never get enough, especially about some things in the legal counsel's office."
Wesselhoft, on the other hand, said she has watched Senate meetings, "mostly on television." She said she learned a lot from Abramson.
Webber said, "I am amazed at the speed with which the speakers get things done. This will be different," he said. "I am a salesman."
Alvin Williams, who made it to the Senate this election after two previous tries, was enthusiastic. "I've followed the Senate and I have an agenda," he said. "You have to be prepared."
The afternoon session featured panel discussions with members of the government, including the functions of the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Finance, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Government Employees Retirement System, Public Finance Authority, V.I. Port Authority, Department of Tourism, Economic Development Commission, University of the Virgin Islands, Office of Collective Bargaining and a view of the territory's economic outlook.
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