Paid, elected, V.I. government officials, the governor’s cabinet members and judges will be up for pay raises every four years, with pay set by a temporary compensation committee, if a bill approved by the Legislature Monday becomes law.
Money from traffic fines will go to the V.I. Police Department, with smaller shares also going to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the courts, thanks to another piece of legislation. These and other measures still need the governor’s signature before becoming law.
The compensation commission bill "attempts to depoliticize the issue of compensation for public officials," its sponsor, Sen. Positive Nelson said. He and other senators recalled controversy over big pay increases for some in Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s cabinet, in the midst of a budget crisis last year, and deeply controversial pay raises for the governor and senators, passed late at night in 2006.
The commission would be formed in January 2017, with nine members: three appointed by the president of the Legislature; three by the governor; and three by the V.I. Supreme Court’s chief justice. It would be a temporary commission, disbanded after it makes its recommendations.
Regular government employees would not be affected, only political appointees, elected officials and judges.
The Senate would still have to ratify any increases, because giving over that authority would violate the federal Revised Organic Act of 1954.
The second measure, proposed by Sen. Sammuel Sanes, would automatically allocate 60 percent of traffic fines to the V.I. Police Department, giving it an institutional incentive to more strictly enforce traffic laws and giving it a new, stable source of revenue.
Another 20 percent would go to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and 20 percent of "fixed, non-discretionary fines" would go to the courts. Since portions of fines are not fixed and are discretionary, there is a small portion of fines that could still go to the government’s General Fund.
Senators approved a small amendment from Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly to say an unspecified portion of the proceeds would go to buy traffic citation books, including ones for citations for animal cruelty.
O’Reilly said officers had told her they do not have any citation books for animal cruelty and are short on others as well. Some senators questioned why the appropriation was needed when the money was already going to VIPD, which could then buy the citation books. Another concern was that the appropriation had no amount attached to it. O’Reilly said there was no dollar figure because "we don’t know what the cost will be."
The Bureau of Correction and the Department of Human Services will have to have secured firearm storage facilities and require personnel to use them instead of leaving firearms at home or in a vehicle, due to another piece of legislation. Human Services maintains the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Kenneth Gittens and Novelle Francis, both former police officers, affects all detention centers in the territory. It also allows Corrections and YRC to have "nonlethal" weapons, such as tasers or pepper spray, to help maintain order and for self protection. [Bill 31-0130]
These three bills were approved 15-0.
Bills to consolidate the territory’s two boards of elections into a single, unitary board and making other changes to election laws were sent back to committee for more vetting, at sponsor Sen. Kenneth Gittens’ request. Senators also voted, at Gittens’ request, to send a bill to committee to change a recently enacted election law changing the number of signatures needed to run for office.
Gittens said he was concerned the measure disproportionately hurt some parties more than others, which he did not intend. Sen. Positive Nelson said signature changes is unfair to him and "ICM party" making it more difficult for candidates of very small parties, such as ICM, to run for office.
Before sending them back to committee, senators amended several of the elections bills to make their effective date after the upcoming election. Gittens and others said federal law prohibits changes to most election laws less than six months before an election and this fall’s general election is less than six months away.