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HomeNewsArchivesNewly Sworn-In Senators Pledge Aggressive Response to Territory's Woes

Newly Sworn-In Senators Pledge Aggressive Response to Territory's Woes

Jan. 12, 2009 — There's no more time for business as usual in the Virgin Islands, according to the newly sworn in members of the 28th Legislature: If the territory is going to bounce back from its current economic troubles, lower crime levels and make life better for local residents, they say, then local leaders have to band together and deliver some change.
That change is expected to start sooner rather than later, as senators prepare to jump head first into a Committee of the Whole hearing Tuesday to take testimony from members of the governor's financial team on a revised fiscal year 2009 budget bill submitted last week to Senate President Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg Jr. (See "DeJongh Submits Revised 2009 Budget.")
Tuesday's hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m.
Donastorg made the announcement Monday, after the members of the 28th Legislature took their oaths of office during the traditional swearing-in ceremonies in Emancipation Garden. The bandstand was covered in banners of red, white and blue and trimmed with fresh flowers. It played host to a number of dignitaries, including Delegate Donna M. Christensen, Gov. John deJongh Jr. and a steady stream of community members who huddled under the shade to witness the event. Numerous visitors to the island fanned the outer wall of the garden, and later actually pulled up chairs and sang along as various performers belted out the National Anthem and the "Virgin Islands March."
Senators stood solemnly as Chief Supreme Court Justice Rhys S. Hodge swore them in, then shook each others' hands — or gathered in a group hug — after the ceremony finished. They made their way through the throng of well-wishers to the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall to convene their first session.
Though delayed by about an hour and a half because of some first-day glitches, the new members quickly organized themselves, adopting a resolution laying out the members of the majority caucus, along with the Senate's officers, committee chairpersons and the rules of the Legislature. The gavel was then passed, as it is every two years, from the outgoing Senate president — in this case, Sen. Usie R. Richards — to the incoming president.
Voting in favor of the resolution were the members of the new Senate majority: Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Donastorg, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Sammuel Sanes, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland and Alvin L. Williams Jr.
Voting against the resolution organizing the Legislature were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Shawn-Michael Malone, Richards and Celestino A. White Sr.
Sens. Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Nellie Rivera-O'Reilly abstained.
Donastorg's position as Senate president has paved the way for a nine-member Democratic majority, with Neville James as majority leader, Thurland as vice president and Sanes as secretary, Sprauve as secretary for intergovernmental and territorial affairs, Hill as liaison to the U.S. Congress, Barshinger as liaison to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs and Wayne James as liaison to the White House.
Thurland will also head up the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, while Hill prepares to take the helm of the newly formed Committee on Appropriations and Budget. Neville James has been selected as chair of the Committee on Financial Services, Infrastructure and Consumer Affairs, while Sprauve will take over the Senate's Health Committee.
Newcomer Wayne James, with his years of experience as a St. Croix educator, has been selected as chair of the Committee on Education, Youth and Culture, while Richards, now in his fourth term, will take on the Senate's Committee on Labor and Agriculture.
White continues his tenure as the chairman of the Senate's Committee on Housing, Sports and Veterans Affairs, while Sanes will try his hand as the chairman of the Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee. Williams will also return for a second term as the head of the Senate's Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection, while Barshinger will head up the newly formed Committee on Economic Development, Energy and Technology.
Despite the traditional majority-minority split, all senators still championed the need to put aside party politics and band together to cure the territory's ills. Malone, a Democratic senator who is not part of the new majority, led the call to arms Monday, saying that all senators — regardless of their party affiliation or what side of the aisle they sit on — must work in tandem to push the Virgin Islands through "the challenging times ahead."
"The people of the Virgin Islands are not ready for business as usual anymore," he said. "Once and for all we have to act like leaders and lead … stop putting our fingers in the wind to see which way it blows and voting like that. We need to take a page from Barack Obama's book — he's not waiting until he's sworn in to say to the people that it's going to get worse before it gets better."
Senators also need to lobby the federal government — Congress in particular — for change, according to Richards. That includes going after the gasoline excise-tax rebates many senators have said is currently on the books, along with health-care and Social Security initiatives that would help improve conditions throughout the territory.
Of course, the number-one priority for many senators was the need to jumpstart the territory's ailing economy — an issue that has, according to officials, served as the major point of focus for the governor's revised budget.
"In principal, I'm in support of what the governor is trying to accomplish," Neville James said after Monday's session was recessed. "We just need to review what he has submitted and see whether the priorities for spending are the same."
Even if the Senate decides to make changes to the budget, it doesn’t mean that the majority isn't going to work with the governor to help push the territory its ongoing financial crisis, Donastorg said.
Also on the top of the senators' lists were the need to create an affordable local health-care program, better infrastructure — such as traversable roads — and an improved education system.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us — a lot more than you realize," Donastorg said Monday to his fellow senators and the large group of residents gathered in the legislative chambers to witness the first session. "Contrary to popular belief, I did not seek out this position. It's not about how Adlah 'Foncie' Donastorg looks in the chair, but how he sits in the chair, how he performs in the chair — and I am prepared to be fair. I look forward to working with the governor.
"We are prepared to start working, and today we will not adjourn this session, we will recess, because we will be back here sooner than you think to address the governor's initiatives and some of our own. And henceforth, we're going to set a different precedent."
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