With three weeks until the general election, Gov. Kenneth Mapp has called a special session of the Legislature on Oct. 26 to consider his proposal aiming to pay tuition for many students at the University of the Virgin Islands starting in 2019.
Mapp proposed the idea five weeks ago, soon after party primaries were held and his Democratic Party opponent Albert Bryan was selected.
The proposed legislation provides for an annual appropriation of $3 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund, beginning in Fiscal Year 2019.
Free college tuition is an idea gaining currency in progressive political circles across the nation as a response to decades of tuition increasing faster than inflation and a corresponding heavy weight of debt on the backs of most young college graduates.
Mapp’s proposal, worked out in conjunction with UVI officials, proposes taking $3 million every year from federal rum taxes remitted to the territory. The rest of the roughly $7 million in tuition for up to 1,700 students would come from existing federal student aid and local funding. Students would be obligated to work in the territory after graduation or pay back a portion of their scholarships.
Other appropriations of these same remitted federal taxes have sometimes languished unpaid. In 2011, the Legislature passed a law that appropriates $7 million per year of those same remitted federal rum taxes to bolster the rapidly collapsing Government Employee Retirement System. The government has paid that very sporadically. As of Sept. 17, it was still $14 million short for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to recent budget testimony from GERS Administrator Austin Nibbs. An ongoing budget crisis has forced the government to reduce appropriations in other areas and to leave waste haulers, sewage treatment plant operators and other vendors unpaid.
The number of students who get scholarships is dependent on the available funding.
In a statement, Mapp said the Legislature needed to act now.
““The President of the University has indicated that any further delay in the consideration of the proposed bill will hamper the university’s ability to implement this program in the fall of 2019,” Mapp wrote in his letter to Senate President Myron Jackson. The letter did not detail how delaying authorization of the spending until after the election would hamper the school’s actions next fall.
UVI President David Hall has strongly endorsed the plan as a major step forward for the university and the territory.
Mapp has scheduled the special session for Friday, Oct. 26- two days after another special session the Legislature called to consider a ballot initiative reapportioning legislative districts in the territory.