The V.I. Police Commissioner will be able to grant certain federal law enforcement officers temporary authority to arrest suspects with probable cause for violations of local law, under legislation signed into law by Gov. John deJongh Jr. The governor also signed the Fiscal Year 2013 budget bills Friday.
Peace officer status offers some legal protections to officers of the law for actions taken in the line of duty. The legislation allows the commissioner of police to extend the legal protections provided local officers to federal agents within the territory on a case-by-case, revocable basis.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sammuel Sanes, engendered controversy in the Senate, with several senators opposing it as ceding control to the federal government.
Before passage, the legislators approved an amendment from Sanes seeking to address those concerns. The amendment makes peace officer status for any federal agent expire automatically after one year unless renewed by the police commissioner. It also mandates an orientation or class for federal peace officers on V.I. law and culture. And there must be semi-annual meetings to discuss the status of the program and whether it should be continued.
DeJongh praised the measure in his signing statement, saying it "will enable the Virgin Islands Police Department to seek and solidify the assistance of federal law enforcement authorities in curtailing the current levels of violent crime as well as in continuing to combat the smuggling of illegal weapons into the territory."
DeJongh also signed legislation that raised the minimum tax rate for Unemployment Insurance from one percent to to two percent and adds an annual surcharge of $25 per employee to cover interest payments on the Unemployment Trust Fund loan.
The changes were needed to fund unemployment insurance and stem a growing debt burden as the territory is forced to borrow money to pay unemployment insurance to V.I. workers, according to Labor Department officials.
Rising unemployment in the territory has led to an increase in unemployment claims, forcing the territory to borrow from the federal government to pay beneficiaries.
The current shortfall and growing debt arose from actions taken in 2001, when the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund had a substantial surplus. That year the Legislature voted to reduce the minimum tax rate to zero and the new employer rate to 1.5 percent – changes that did not impact the trust fund while the economy was doing well.
"Raising the rate of Unemployment Insurance payments is practical given that the rate is still substantially below the level which existed in the past, when it has been as high as nine percent," deJongh said. "We are not alone in dealing with rising unemployment claims, as 37 states have borrowed monies to ensure uninterrupted payment of unemployment claims," he went on.
DeJongh vetoed a measure that would have allowed companies receiving tax breaks through the territory’s Economic Development Commission to hire five local employees, as opposed to the current 10.
"While the intent was to enable designated service businesses, particularly financial services companies, to have a competitive advantage," deJongh said, the measure "goes far beyond this limited intent by including a myriad of business enterprises in the professional services arena," and " would be detrimental as they would stifle economic growth and expansion of current beneficiaries’ business activities." He also said he preferred a more comprehensive review of the entire EDC program.
DeJongh also signed legislation:
• Changing the name of the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation to the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation;
• Authorizing WTJX Public Television to expand into other media besides television and changing the title of its director to chief executive officer;
• Transferring oversight of the territory’s Medical Assistance Program from the Department of Health to the Department of Human Services;
• Honoring St. Croix civic activist George Flores and St. Croix culture bearer Gloria Joseph.
DeJongh also signed numerous budget related bills and internal fund transfer measures. For budget details, see related links below.
Regarding the budget, DeJongh said a Senate decision to reject the administration’s proposal to adjust the employer and employee cost share of the health insurance premiums from the current 65/35 split to a 60/40 split, "the Legislature has as a practical matter underfunded the government’s share of the health insurance premium in fiscal year 2013."
The governor also said the University of the Virgin Islands had been inadvertently underfunded, saying he hoped to see legislation addressing the difference between his recommended appropriation of $28.1 million and the budget of $22.9 million approved by the Legislature in September.