Senate Candidates Square Off on LEAC and Other Energy Issues

Oct. 30, 2008 — Virgin Islanders learned a little more about this year's contenders for the Legislature Thursday as candidates answered questions on St. Croix about energy policy, economic development, the territory's high utility bills and an array of other issues.
Radio host and former Sen. Holland Redfield moderated the forum at St. Croix's Island Center, the second of two rounds of questions hosted by the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce and the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association. Because of the number of candidates seeking election to the 28th Legislature, the 14 candidates participating in Thursday's showdown were randomly assigned to two separate panels, one following the other at Thursday's event.
Most of the candidates favored having the government directly subsidize resident's utility bills by paying part of the levelized energy-adjustment clause (LEAC) fuel surcharge for ratepayers.
"The WAPA consumer-rescue act proposed by me and the minority does exactly what you ask," said Sen. Ronald Russell, an incumbent. As he did on the floor of the Legislature earlier in the week, Russell said money for the subsidy could come from cash reserves, uncollected property taxes and funded but vacant government positions. Government officials testified to the Legislature Monday the government does not actually have large sums of surplus money, and the cost of paying the LEAC is unsustainable. Russell and several other senators disagreed, but the bill was held in committee at Russell's request.
Former Sen. Craig Barshinger said he favored a subsidy "in the short term" to address the immediate crisis, and praised Russell for "getting the ball rolling."
Incumbent Sen. Usie Richards said he favored the notion of subsidizing the LEAC, but money may limit what can be done.
"We need to support the LEAC," he said. "But the fact is there are budget constraints. … The government is in a mess and we have a lot of pressing issues facing us."
Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft, the at-large incumbent, opposed subsidizing the LEAC.
"If we subsidize it and get the funding from whatever source, I believe eventually that will be passed onto the consumers to repay," she said.
Diane Cape hart, Nellie Rivera-O'Reilly and Gonzalo Rivera each said rather than subsidizing everyone's bill across the board, they would favor increasing the existing RECAP program through which Human Services provides direct utility assistance to those in need.
"I would support adding funding to RECAP and easing the criteria, so we can reach more people and even some businesses," O'Reilly said.
On some issues there was near-unanimous agreement: Asked whether WAPA should be privatized, all but Barshinger and Iotha Ineta Thomas said they were staunchly opposed.
Most of the candidates favored burning coal or petroleum coke to generate power if it will save money and can be done cleanly. Wayne James said he did not favor using coal, and Russell said he wants to see the territory move away from fossil fuels altogether.
Only Barshinger and Wesselhoft, both candidates for the sole territory-wide at-large seat, supported the terms of a recent agreement with Diageo corporation to pay to build a distillery on St. Croix that will ultimately pour about $100 million a year into the government treasury.
Four members of the group supported the death penalty for first-degree murder of a police officer or the rape and murder of a minor: Capehart, Thomas, Naomi "Sandra" Joseph
and incumbent Terrence "Positive" Nelson.
This was a final chance for many of the candidates to get their faces and their views out to the public before the election Tuesday, and the candidates all managed to work their ballot numbers and campaign slogans into their answers. Appearing at Thursday's forum were:
— Naomi "Sandra" Joseph
— Usie Richards
— Terrance "Positive" Nelson
— Ronald Russell
— Craig Barshinger
— Iotha Ineta Thomas

Followed by a second panel with:
— Carmen Wesselhoft
— Diane Capehart
— Nellie Rivera-O'Reilly
— Adelbert Bryan
— Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal
— Gonzalo Rivera
— Wayne James
— Michael Thurland
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