In an emergency legislative session Friday, widely spaced senators unanimously approved five items which the senators hoped would keep the U.S. Virgin Islands financially stable through the economic instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawmakers kept their distance to emphasize the “social distancing” that is part of preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Several senators emphasized the nonpartisan effort that got the bills to the Senate floor. Sen. Athneil Thomas said that during these negotiations “We were not battling each other, instead we were battling for the people.”
The bills passed included one to send a resolution asking Congress to include the Virgin Islands in COVID-19 stimulus programs, one to enable the closing on the disaster recovery funding-based line of credit, and one to authorize the governor to borrow from public funds to offset cash flow problems caused by shortfalls resulting from the pandemic.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw said the measures would ensure that there would be no payless paydays for government workers.
“Today is a result of days spent in teleconference calls,” Sarauw said. “Every day this body hit the pavement until we came to a consensus.”
Sen. Marvin Blyden said the measures were passed “to keep the government going.”
Sen. Javan James said giving the governor the power to extend the government’s line of credit would enable an “infusion of cash in the territory’s economy.”
Sen. Kurt Vialet said the measures were necessary because government revenues may shrink 30 to 40 percent in the coming months.
Amid the praise for how residents were handling the crisis, there was a little criticism. Blyden said he was not happy with people he saw who were gathering in groups, a practice of contrary to the social distancing being encouraged. Sen. Kenneth Gittens did not mention any names but said this was not a time for department heads “to flex their muscles.” He said workers had been threatened with losing their jobs.
There also was some dissension among the senators, less on what was done than HOW it was done. Four of the senators attended through video conference. They wanted to be counted as present and were so during the first roll call.
However, Sen. Kenneth Gittens said the practice “violated legislature rules” to recognize as present senators who were not physically present in the St. Thomas chambers.
Blyden made a motion that the section of the legislative rules concerning presence in the St. Thomas chamber be waived for the meeting. His motion failed to get a second.
Attending remotely but not recognized as present were Sens. Alicia Barnes, Allison DeGazon, Myron Jackson, and Steven Payne.
Present on St. Thomas were Sarauw, James, Gittens, Blyden, Thomas, Vialet, Sens. Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis, Donna Frett-Gregory, Oakland Benta and Stedmann Hodge.
A bill which would require the Water and Power Authority to suspend electric and water service disconnections until June or until the state of emergency declared by the governor on March 13 is lifted was taken off the agenda
Sen Frett-Gregory, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the bill needed more work. She said she had received assurances from WAPA that no one was in danger of immediately having their utility services disconnected.
Another bill concerning WAPA was approved and forwarded to the governor for further action. This bill would reduce the amount of time that WAPA could back-bill customers. Many residents in the territory were upset when WAPA recently sent them a bill for two months to catch up on its billing cycle which was knocked off track during the 2017 hurricanes.