Plastic Bag Ban, Police Retirement Changes Go to Senate Floor

A ban on plastic grocery bags, new provisions for police, fire and corrections officers to retire later, and loosened restrictions on Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (Food Stamp) benefits are among the bills sent on Friday for final votes during Senate session scheduled next week.

The plastic bag ban was originally championed by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, then became one of three measures requested by Gov. Kenneth Mapp aimed at reducing material going to the territory’s landfills.

The other two items, a container deposit law and a comprehensive recycling program, are more complex and expensive to initiate. They have been heard in committee and await discussion in the Rules and Judiciary Committee.

Senators credited Rivera-O’Reilly and also students at the former Good Hope (now Good Hope Country Day) private school on St. Croix for raising awareness of the issue.

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As is, the bill would forbid some plastic bags but allow those that are designated "compostable." When it was first heard in committee, some testimony suggested that those bags were also bad for the environment, releasing toxic chemicals, and senators discussed amending it to prohibit all plastic bags and allowing only paper bags, which can be composted. The bill has not been amended to date.

Plastic bags are cheap to buy and not using them may cost businesses a little more to provide paper bags, but the change is needed, Sen. Neville James said.

"The move to plastic bags was clearly based on economics," James said "Business owners are in the business of looking at the bottom line. … But there comes a time when a jurisdiction has to do what is in the best interest of the territory," James said.

Sen. Janette Millin Young said she supports the bill but would suggest delaying its effective date, "as it takes effect in two weeks," at the beginning of October. James said it may be amended on the floor of the Senate.

Senators voted 6-0 to send the bag ban on for a final vote. Voting yes were Millin Young, James, Sens. Jean Forde, Novelle Francis, Justin Harrigan and Kenneth Gittens. Rivera-O’Reilly was absent.

Police officers, Bureau of Corrections officers and firefighters will be able to work an additional three years, until age 63, if a bill, sponsored by Francis and sent on for a final vote Friday is enacted into law. The measure may help reduce overtime, reduce staffing shortages and reduce costs to the government pension system, Francis said. He emphasized Friday that the change was optional and employees would not be required to work longer.

Under current law, every policeman, firefighter or prison guard retires automatically at age 55 but can apply to stay on until age 60, if they get an annual certification of health that they are physically and mentally able to continue in the position.

Francis’s bill would increase that to age 63. It also has a sunset provision, ending in 2021.

The U.S. Virgin Islands will join 38 U.S. states and territories in lifting a ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for those who have been convicted but have completed their sentence on drug related offenses, if a bill sponsored by O’Reilly and sent on Friday becomes law.

A federal law signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton bans food and income assistance for those convicted of drug-related felonies. The law allows states and localities to carve out local exceptions.

"You can be convicted of rape, second degree murder or domestic violence and qualify for SNAP benefits," Sen. Kurt Vialet said, introducing the measure to the Rules and Judiciary Committee on Friday.

People need to be able to survive after they get out of jail without "going back to the street," Vialet said.

"I only think it is fair because every other individual qualifies for SNAP benefits when they are released," he said.

The V.I. Water and Power Authority will pay prevailing interest rates on customer deposits instead of the statutory 4.75 percent set in V.I. law since 1974, if another bill approved Friday is enacted.

Sen. Clifford Graham, sponsor of the measure, said it would save WAPA money and ultimately save ratepayers money as a result.

"Right now you are pretty much getting 0.75 or 1 percent on a savings account, so we are putting a hardship on the utility because they are paying out more in interest than they are receiving," Graham said.

Other senators agreed.

"To the best of my knowledge, no other utility is compelled to charge interest on customer deposits. … We can’t expect them to pay out these high interest rates when in our market, the interest rates are much lower," Forde said.

The committee also sent on bills to require the Sports, Parks and Recreation Department to post a listing of all vacant and occupied vendor spaces on its website and making the V.I. Cancer Registry conform with standard U.S. disease registry reporting conventions. And it sent on a $1.3 million transfer from the Government Insurance Fund to the Finance and Labor departments.

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