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Christensen Doubtful Proposed Constitution Can Pass

Christensen vowed to be vigilant in protecting V.I. interests regarding health care reform.V.I. Congressional Delegate Donna Christensen said Tuesday she hopes the territory is able to “take that step” and adopt a constitution, but doesn’t think it can pass in its present shape.

Christensen spoke Tuesday morning at her office in the Sunshine Mall on the west end of St. Croix to a gathering of the territory’s media, outlining the triumphs and struggles of the year.

2009 was busy and sometimes difficult in the halls of Congress, Christensen said, and things aren’t slowing down in the new year. Some of the biggest issues – health care reform, the rum dispute between the territory and Puerto Rico, fisheries and historic designations, among others – will keep her busy for the remainder of the session.

The proposed V.I. Constitution was forwarded to President Obama last week. The president has 60 days to review the document and forward it to Congress with his comments. Christensen said only Congress has the authority to amend it. Congress has 60 days, then must forward it back to the territory for a vote.

“I would like to see us have a constitution,” she said. “I think in its current form it’s not likely to pass a vote of the territory, but I think it’s important for the territory to take that big step forward and have a constitution.”

The problem, she said, is that there are provisions in the document that are not constitutional. As an example she cited a provision that would restrict who can run for governor to certain people born in the territory.

“An area that treats a citizen of the United States differently than any other citizen of the United States is not acceptable,” she said.

Health care reform has been the most difficult issue to face the Congress this year – maybe the most difficult she’s faced in her 12 years in Congress, she said – and the Christmas eve passage of the bill in the Senate, while a milestone, doesn’t stop the work.

Now lawmakers have to reconcile the many differences between the House and Senate versions—work that was continued by staff members over the holidays. Congressional leadership is already back in the nation’s capital, and Christensen said she has been in constant contact with the negotiators.

“I got an e-mail at one o’clock this morning,” she said. “The work is in progress.”

“I’m a little bit concerned that we’re gong to have to accept some of the weaker language of the Senate bill to get it passed,” she added

She noted that after the final bill is passed and signed, there will be a three-year period for implementation of the provisions, adding that she plans to be very involved in that process.

Christensen has been deeply involved in the health care debate due to her position on the Committee on Energy and Commerce. She is also a member of the Committee on Natural Resources, which includes authority over insular affairs, fisheries, and national parks.

She has been leading the effort to get St. Croix designated a National Heritage Area. She said she expects the application to be submitted later this year, after more input from locals.

The rum cover-over dispute with Puerto Rico grew out of an agreement between the V.I. government and international spirits maker Diageo to build a rum distillery on St. Croix and to not renew a contract with a Puerto Rican distributor to make its Captain Morgan’s Rum. The territory entered into a similar arrangement with Fortune Brands, owner of Cruzan Rum. In both cases, bonds to finance the construction is backed by rum cover-over funds. Last year Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, has introduced a measure that would retroactively outlaw such agreements.

That bill, HR 2122, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, but Christensen said she is keeping an eye on it. If she cannot keep it bottled up in the Ways & Means Committee, she said, she would look for a way to find some mutually agreeable settlement.

The tax extender bill is another issue in which the rum dispute can simmer over. The bill, called the Tax Extenders Act of 2009, contains scores of provisions like the cover-over extension, which adds $2.75 per proof gallon to the cover-over. It passed the House late last year, but is still awaiting action in the Senate.

Christensen said Tuesday that there may be hearings on the bill, which is fairly unusual, and will give backers of Puerto Rico another opportunity to raise the issue.

At the beginning of the press meeting, Christensen wanted to “say thanks to the people of the Virgin Islands for giving me the opportunity to serve … without their support and votes I would not have been able to build up the kind of seniority that would enable me to be on Energy and Commerce.”

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