ST. THOMAS- Members of the 33rd Legislature led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr. convened in the Legislative Session at the Capitol Building on Tuesday and voted favorably for two measures, including Bill No. 33-0424, to ratify Governor Albert Bryan’s declaration to extend the State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 Pandemic from October 9, 2020, to December 8, 2020, totaling 60 days. Invited testifiers were the officials from the Virgin Islands Department of Health (DOH), the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA), and the Virgin Islands Division of Personnel. All approved items will be forwarded to the Governor for further consideration.
In response to a question about the timing of the meeting, Francis stated that Legal Counsel advised senators to meet in Legislative Session to adjudicate these matters. “It is stated in the law that lawmakers have five days to act on the bill and the rules speak to seven days. However, if we do not act, the State of Emergency will automatically renew, and it will be extended for an additional 30 days. Therefore, I decided to have Session because of the necessity based on the request and advice of legal counsel,” said Sen. Francis, who proposed the bill at the request of the Governor.
Rising out of Legislative Session and into Committee of the Whole, policymakers received testimony on Bill No. 33-0424- An Act renewing and extending the State of Emergency in the Virgin Islands to facilitate proper planning and response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and hurricane season. DOH Commissioner Justa Encarnacion noted that the extension is essential for the Government of the Virgin Islands (GVI) to maintain access to Federal benefits and assistance regarding combating the spread of COVID-19 in the Territory. Additionally, the extension will ensure that the Territory is in alignment with the guidelines issued by the President of the United States for mitigating the pandemic. The adverse effects to ending the State of Emergency are inclusive of GVI’s lack of access to Federal funds and resources, the lack of control of business operations, the loss of control over goods and services such as implementing a price freeze, and the inability to mandate targeted testing to offset a second surge of the coronavirus in the Territory, according to VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen.
Since March 13, 2020, the Territory has been under a State of Emergency because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Thus far, a total of 21,507 people was tested. Out of that 20,155 were negative and 1,322 are positive. To date, there are 20 deaths and 19 active cases in the Virgin Islands, according to Encarnacion. In response to Sen. Oakland Benta’s inquiry regarding the accurate number of positive cases, Encarnacion mentioned DOH backtracked by a month, reviewed the numbers, and updated the data. Moreover, to further reduce the spread of the virus, Encarnacion indicated that some strategies for DOH include implementing a Vaccination Task Force to provide COVID-19 vaccinations, the creation of Boots on the Ground to inform and educate the public about the virus and proper safety measures, and pop-up testing sites.
Additionally, the Body also considered Bill No. 33-0423- An Act amending the Virgin Islands Code title 3, chapter 25, subchapter IV; relating to the Virgin Islands Compensation Commission to change the beginning date for Commission members’ service and the beginning date for convening the Commission, to prescribe qualifications for membership on the Compensation Commission, to restrict the Compensation Commission from reducing salaries and other expenses below the level existing at the time of the determination, and proving for approval of the Compensation Commission’s recommendations by default for the Legislature’s nonaction; amending title 2, section 71 relating to the annual salary of members of the Legislature to sever senators’ salary from the lowest annual compensation of the officers itemized in 3 V.I.C. § 29; providing for the interim retention of the existing salary for members of the Legislature of $85,000; and directing the Governor, the President of the Legislature, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court each to appoint three members to the Virgin Islands Public Officials Compensation Commission.
The Virgin Islands Division of Personnel Director Dayna Clendinen testified that she supports the measure because the salaries of the three branches of government should not be interconnected. Furthermore, Clendinen stated that due to the lack of funding for the Division of Personnel, the members of the V.I. Compensation Commission should receive a stipend and not be reimbursed for travel and subsistence expenses.
Rising out of Committee of the Whole, senators re-convened into Legislative Session and voted favorably for Bill No. 33-0424 as amended and Bill No. 33-0423. About Bill No. 33-0423, senators collectively concurred that the economy was adversely affected due to the COVID-19, and a salary increase was very unlikely at the Legislature of the Virgin Islands. Policymakers shared remarks to Bill No. 33-0423. “No one is talking about all the great bills and initiatives that were signed into law for the past two years,” Sen. Allison DeGazon said. “All people are talking about is the $15K raises that senators did not ask for. My record is solid and if this is what some people have to do get exposure and get votes, shame on you.” Sen. Kurt Vialet stated that the same justifications used for senators not receiving a $15K increase should be applied to commissioners in the Executive Branch. “We must be fair across the board at this juncture a commissioner does not need a raise when departments are operating with reduced hours,” Sen. Vialet said.
Lastly, Sen. Francis expressed support for the measures. “The work and impactful initiatives passed during the last Session have been overshadowed by this issue. It is important that we do our due diligence, vet measures, and pass meaningful legislation. I believe that we have an opportunity to fix this situation that is a burden and a bother to many. To talk about salary increases for senators during these hard times is a travesty especially when people are truly hurting in this community,” Sen. Francis said.”