BILLS TO ESTABLISH MARITIME SCHOLARSHIP AND TO REDUCE THE NUMBER OF WEEKS FOR UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS FORWARDED

Published: Feb 6, 2024

ST. THOMAS – Members of the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, chaired by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building. Lawmakers voted and approved two bills regarding scholarships for students pursuing a career in the maritime industry and the reduction of unemployment benefits. All approved measures will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Senator Frett-Gregory noted that Virgin Islanders are aware of what the maritime industry and blue economy mean to the community in terms of revenues and career opportunities. The blue economy supports the territory tremendously. Consequently, according to the written testimony submitted by Oriol Blake, Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Maritime Industry Educational Scholarship to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands, approximately sixty percent of the Virgin Islands’ gross domestic product is derived from tourism and based on the data from NOAA and the USVI travel portal, an estimated two million visitors each year participate in maritime activities while in the Virgin Islands. Additionally, one million utilize boat charter services.

Bill No. 35-0133 – An Act that seeks to amend Title 17 of the Virgin Islands Code relating to scholarships by adding Section 190gg to establish an educational scholarship program to support individuals interested in pursuing a career in the maritime industry in the Virgin Islands. Senator Angel L. Bolques Jr. is the bill sponsor. The measure seeks to grant a $40,000 scholarship, or $10,000 per year, for four years to eligible applicants who are high school graduates or college students pursuing a career in the maritime industry. Applicants must be enrolled in a vocational institution, maritime college, university, or college before receiving scholarship funds. Furthermore, scholarship recipients must return to work in the Virgin Islands once employment opportunities are available.

In support of the bill, Dr. Kyza A. Callwood, the chairman of the Virgin Islands Board of Education noted that the maritime scholarship is an investment in local talent, addresses skill gaps in the community, and promotes educational excellence. Victor Somme III, Assistant Commissioner of Education, provided testimony on behalf of Dionne Wells Hedrington, Ed.D., Commissioner of Education. Somme stated that access to specialized education maritime scholarships will provide students with the opportunity to pursue an education in maritime studies, navigation, marine engineering, and related fields. Although lawmakers voted unanimously for the bill, recommendations were made to select two scholarship recipients instead of one per year.

Separately, policymakers Bill No. 35-0218 – An Act amending Title 24 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 12, relating to unemployment benefits by reducing the number of weeks that unemployment benefits can be received; increasing the statute of limitations for the collection of overpayments of unemployment benefits from claimants and for delinquent employer contribution; allowing for the implementation of the payroll variation methodology launch in the calendar year beginning January 2024; implementing a 10-year record retention period for employers; and requiring employers to register with the Virgin Islands State Information Data Exchange System. The bill was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., at the request of the Governor. The Virgin Islands Department of Labor, Gary Molloy, clarified that the reduction in weeks is not equivalent to a reduction in the amount of unemployment benefits claimants receive. Highlighting the key benefits, Molloy cited that the language of the bill encourages people to return to work as quickly as possible while keeping the overall funding for unemployment benefits at a comparable level. Senators present at the committee hearing include Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Samuel Carrion Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Dwayne M. DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, and Javan E. James, Sr.                                                                                                                                     ###

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