ST. THOMAS – Members of the 34th Legislature, led by Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, reconvened in Legislative Session at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall.
The body first returned to the Committee of the Whole to receive testimony on the following:
Bill No. 34-0153, an act establishing the Sixth Constitutional Convention of the Virgin Islands; and providing for an appropriation to cover convention-related expenses. The measure was sponsored by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Genevieve R. Whitaker.
Myron Jackson, retired senator, and historian delivered testimony in support of the proposed measure. According to JacksonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testimony, on November 3, 2020, the Virgin Islands electorate voted yes to the referendum question on the ballot, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Should the Revised Organic Act of 1954, or portions of it, be adopted as the Constitution of the US Virgin Islands. Jackson stated that he was pleased to see the progress made by the instruction of Bill No. 34-0153. Jackson stated that the history of over 500 years of struggle for human rights, civil rights and self determination has been well documented, but sadly, not well known by Virgin Islanders and residents of the territory. Jackson stated that while some may see that this is not a progressive action for a territory that has not determined its political status, and that a status referendum should be the first course of action before drafting a constitution, the bill provides a framework for the territory to move forward. Jackson stated that he did not believe that the adoption of the Organic Act would be regressive, and that our self determination should follow the process and that it would not preclude our right to self-determination. Jackson however, voiced caution that the draft document of the 5th Constitutional Convention, or any other convention draft not be mandated in the process at this time.
The proposed measure would provide authority and duty to draft language to include an official name of the Virgin Islands, a Preamble, and an Amendment Clause in compliance with Public Law 94-584. Once that is achieved, the Revised Organic Act of 1954 would be forwarded to the White House and Congress for review and approval, in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. The process of other desired amendments should only occur after the return of the Constitutional document from Congress to the Territory and the vote by the electorate approving the document as our Constitution. At that time the work of the Constitutional Convention would transition to a Constitution Revision Commission for the review and drafting of needed amendment relevant and applicable to the current and future needs of the Virgin Islands. Fifteen delegates are proposed to be a part of the Convention. Three of the delegates are to be appointed to serve from the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Branches, respectively. The remaining twelve delegates are to be elected by the electorate, six would be from the District of St. Croix, and six from the District of St. Thomas-St. John. Jackson also proposed that a 2/3 majority of the 15 delegates approve the constitution draft, which would require the approval of 10 delegates.
Gerard Emanuel, a Delegate to the 5th Constitutional Convention, delivered testimony regarding the bill. Emanuel supported the intent of the bill, which has been to ensure that the people of the US Virgin Islands finally obtain their own constitution, that they could amend. Emanuel stated that the approval of this document would be a bright day for the territory, and that they people would be able to make necessary amendments during general elections to improve local government and governance. He stated that this activity would rebuild the strong foundation of civil participation which according to Emanuel, was seeming lost and to begin addressing the internal issues and preparing voters to address political status.
Emanuel delivered suggestions for amendments to the bill, such as inserting Ã¢â‚¬Å“Amendments other than those mentioned in SECTION 1. (b), (1), shall be withheld until after the draft constitution returns from Congress and is approved in a referendum by the VI electorate. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ in Section 1, (b), (3), reducing the number of delegates required to approve the constitution from 13 of out 15, to 10 out of 15., which is a 2/3 majority, which was used in previous conventions, including language to make the 6th constitutional convention a permanent constitutional council to address future matters, the elimination of at large delegates, ensuring constructive, historical, and institutional knowledge is provided, and clarifying language that states that the constitution would be effective on March 31, 2025.
Gerard Luz James II, who served as the President of the 5th Constitutional Convention delivered testimony. In brief remarks, James stated that he believed that the document that was delivered from that convention is a lawful document which represented the people of the US Virgin Islands and stated that the document speaks to the God given right to freely represent ourselves. He stated that he believed that the document was never read nor understood thoroughly and believed that the people of the Virgin Islands were misled. According to James, upon his return to the territory, he received a call from the Legal Counsel of the Office of President Barack Obama. James stated that he requested counsel to send the concern in writing, but stated it was never received.
Dr. Gwen-Marie Moolenaar, the President of the League of Women Votes, delivered testimony. Moolenaar stated that there was much to like about the bill, but voiced concerns. Moolenaar stated that nothing that was being proposed is different from previous attempts. Moolenaar stated that the Legislature was insistent in doing the same thing and hoping to get a different result. Moolenaar stated that the league feared that eligible persons would be discouraged by the cost of at large campaigns for the convention and was convinced that at large delegates were not needed or necessary. Moolenaar stated that if at large delegates were eliminated, there should be 7 delegates from St. Croix, 7 from St. Thomas, and 1 from St John. She also agreed in reducing the number of delegates needed to approve the document, from 13 to 10.
Malachi R. Thomas, a local resident delivered testimony. Thomas, who recently returned to the territory, voiced concern with how laws were written, stating that they often gave more power to government programs, to Ã¢â‚¬Å“disaster capitalistsÃ¢â‚¬Â, who had only existed in the territory since the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, stating that they were such because they were only in the territory for financial motivation, and not for the land, the people, or the culture. Per ThomasÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ testimony, the US Virgin Islands population decreased 18.1% from 106,405 in 2010 to 87,146 in 2020. Thomas stated that a key part in reversing this population decline is evidence of a transparent government that encourages deep engagement. Thomas also asked the body to reconsider the eligibility requirements for residency in the legislation as it concerns who could file to be a candidate for the Convention.
The Committee also considered Bill No. 34-0370, a resolution mandating the President of Thirty-Fourth Legislature of the Virgin Islands to institute a civil action against the Government EmployeesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Retirement System of the Virgin Islands for its failure to implement the provisions of Title 3 Virgin Islands Code, sections 717(b)(17), 717(c), 719(b), 766 (b)(17), 766 (b)(18), and 766 (c). The measure was sponsored by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens.
Mr. Austin Nibbs, the Administrator of the Government EmployeesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Retirement System delivered testimony. Nibbs stated that it was very unfortunate that a resolution to mandate the President of the Legislature to file a civil lawsuit against the GERS was being discussed. Per NibbsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ testimony, the GERS previously stated on numerous occasions and before the Committee on Finance on August 16, 2022, GERSÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ recommendation for the reinstatement of the member loan program, in conjunction with securing long term financial stability for GERS, in addition to the issuance of the Annual Benefits Statements as a major goal for FY 2023.
On August 20, 2015, the Board of Trustees temporarily suspended the loan program in order to ensure cash availability to pay benefits, notwithstanding the financial benefits to the community and the importance of the loan program to the members of the GERS. The board expressed its fiduciary responsibility and obligation to protect the system, and to ensure its survivability, and its availability to pay retirement benefits. On July 22, 2022, the GERS management presented recommendations to the Board to gradually reinstate the personal loan program on October 1, 2024 in accordance with Act 7880, and the mortgage product on October 1, 2025.
Prior to the infusion of $247.1 Million from the bond note, the asset allocation was 80% fixed income and cash. Since this infusion, the board has changed the risk profile and approved and implemented a gradual approach to moving GERS assets through the new policy target of 65% equity and 35% bonds and cash. The projected drawdowns from the portfolio in FY 2023 to fund benefits and expenses are expected to be between $100 million and $120 Million. The estimated cash inflow is $309.7 million. This includes $151.7 million from contributions and the $158.0 million funding from the Bond Note.
The estimated cash out-flow is $308.1 million, which includes $292.5 in benefit payments and $15.6 million in operating expenses). Based on projections, in FY 2023 through FY 2025, the System is expected to experience positive cash flows between $1.6 million and $1.8 million. Between FY 2026 through FY 2039, the System is expected to experience negative cash flows before the next $158 million annual installment in FY 2040. This is concerning to the system. However, the majority of Tier II members are expected to begin to retire in 2035, decreasing the annuity benefits payout and improving cash flows going forward.
Per Nibbs testimony, it was expressed to the Committee on Finance on August 16, 2022 that GERS could not rely only on investments in the market. The board has implemented or will be implementing the following: 1). Change the Asset Allocation Policy Targets from fixed income (Bonds) to Equity. (Completed). 2). Reinstate the Member Loan Program (Pending), and 3). Increase the employer contribution rate to 26.5% on January 1, 2025, which is currently pending. Nibbs stated one of the primary goals of 2023 was to provide the Annual Benefits Statements to Tier 1 as well as Tier 2 members. Bill 34-0370 states that GERS shall mail members and retirees no later than February 1 each year a statement of benefits. Tier 1 Annual Benefits Statement has been available to view online in the member staff module of GERS since 2018. GERS strongly recommended their members to access the statements electronically.
Dwayne Callwood, Sr., the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Virgin Islands Government Employees Retirement System delivered testimony. Callwood stated that the Board of Trustees did not support the passage of Bill No. 34-0370. Callwood stated that in August 2015, as the GERS was approaching insolvency, the decision was made to temporarily suspend the loan program as a cash saving measure in order to extend the life of the system. Callwood said that it has always been the intention of the Board to resume the loan program as soon as it was financially prudent to do so. Act 7880 delivered a needed lifeline for the system, although the system remains fragile. The annual scheduled payments to the system, created by the Special Purpose Vehicle in Act 7880 are not equal. If payments are received as scheduled, the system still faces a period of projected negative cash flows between FY 2026 and FY 2039. The source of the funding, rum cover over funds, was projected at $13.25 per gallon. It is unclear if the system will receive these payments at the same level of funding. Callwood stated that he did not believe that initiating court action would be the way to go, due to the projection that mailings will be sent out in 2023, and reinstating of the loan program in October of 2024.
In Block four, the body then returned to Legislative Session to vote on the following bills, all of which were voted upon favorably:
A motion to reconsider Bill No. 34-0377, an act amending Official Zoning Map No. STZ-9 for the island of St. Thomas to change the zoning designation of Parcel Nos. 19F-1 Remainder and 19N Remainder, Estate Smith Bay, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, East End Quarter, St. Thomas from A-1 (Agricultural Zone) to C (Commercial) and R-3 (Residential-Medium Density), respectively, was considered. This bill was passed and did not include the use of a variance that was recommended by DPNR in its report rezoning the property and allowed a use variance.
Bill No. 34-0211, an act amending Title 19, Virgin Islands Code, part VI, Chapter 62 relating to noise pollution to augment its enforcement. The measure was sponsored by Senators Novelle E. Francis, Jr., and Milton E. Potter.
Bill No. 34-0232, an act amending Title 20 of the Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 3, section 42 relating to the GovernorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s initial report to the Legislature on a long-range program for the construction and improvement of roads and highways throughout the Virgin Islands; to change the time and frequency for the Governor to submit the report to the Legislature and to establish procedures and minimum standards for paving and constructing roads in the Virgin Islands and for other related purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senators Javan E. James, Sr., Alma Francis Heyliger, and Angel L. Bolques, Jr.
Bill No. 34-0236, an act amending Title 17 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 15, section 190dd extending the eligibility for the Virgin Islands Higher Education Scholarship Program to part-time students. The measure was sponsored by Senator Samuel CarriÃƒÂ³n, and co-sponsored by Senators Genevieve R. Whitaker and Carla J. Joseph.
Bill No. 34-0238, an act amending Title 17 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 5, section 41(c), relating to courses of study in public schools to require that Virgin Islands and Caribbean history to be integrated into the curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12 and for other purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker and co-sponsored by Carla J. Joseph and Angel L. Bolques, Jr.
Bill No. 34-0243, an act amending Title 3, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 23, section 415 and 27 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 4, section 193 regarding the composition and duties of the Board of Naturopathic Physicians and for other related purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker.
Bill No. 34-0253, an act amending Title 33, subtitle 2, Chapter 81, section 2304 of the Virgin Islands Code to extend the exemption from the payment of real property taxes to certain real property. The measure was sponsored by Senators Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Alma Francis Heyliger, and Dwayne DeGraff, and co-sponsored by Senator Marvin A. Blyden.
Bill No. 34-0265, an act amending Title 23, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 10 by adding subchapter 1A to establish the Office of Disability Integration within the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency. The measure was sponsored by Senators Marvin A. Blyden, Genevieve R. Whitaker, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Milton E. Potter, and Samuel CarriÃÅ’n.
Bill No. 34-0271, an act amending Title 10, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 5, section 64 of the Civil Rights Act to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as an unlawful discriminatory practice. The measure was sponsored by Senator Janelle K. Sarauw and co-sponsored by Senators Marvin A. Blyden and Samuel CarriÃÅ’n.
Bill No. 34-0272, an act amending Title 3, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 16, section 274 to empower the Executive Director of the Taxicab Commission to hire the necessary staff to operate and manage the Taxicab Commission office. The measure was sponsored by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw, Franklin D. Johnson and Marvin A. Blyden, and co-sponsored by Senator Samuel CarriÃÅ’n.
Bill No. 34-0279, an act amending Title 19, Virgin Islands Code, part V restructuring, reclassifying and adopting the first comprehensive Virgin Islands Behavioral Health Act to provide for services and interdepartmental coordination of agencies and organizations to provide a structure of support to individuals throughout the Virgin Islands who suffer from behavioral health challenges; to establish community behavioral health services, as well as to provide for the first comprehensive public Behavioral Health Facility to treat individuals voluntarily and involuntarily who face behavioral health challenges; amending and repealing conflicting laws; and providing for other related purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senators Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Samuel CarriÃÅ’n, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Dwayne M. DeGraff, and Milton E. Potter, and co-sponsored by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker.
Bill No. 34-0283, an act amending Title 17, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 15, relating to scholarships by adding section 190ff to establish Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Virgin Islands Stenography Scholarship FundÃ¢â‚¬Â, which will fund a scholarship for individuals pursuing a certificate in stenography, court reporting, or a related field. The measure was proposed by Senators Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., and Milton E. Potter.
Bill No. 34-0357, an act amending Title 27, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 16, relating to Real Estate Appraisers. The measure was proposed by Senators Novelle E. Francis, Jr., and Angel L. Bolques, Jr, and co-sponsored by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker.
In Block 5, the Committee considered the following:
Bill No. 34-0370, a Resolution mandating the President of Thirty-Fourth Legislature of the Virgin Islands to institute a civil action against the Government EmployeesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Retirement System of the Virgin Islands for its failure to implement the provisions of Title 3 Virgin Islands Code, sections 717(b)(17), 717(c), 719(b), 766 (b)(17), 766 (b)(18), and 766 (c). The measure was proposed by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens. However, the proposed measure was removed from the agenda.
The following bills were all voted upon favorably:
Bill No. 34-0368, an act amending Title 33, Subtitle 3, Chapter 111 of the Virgin Islands Code, establishing an Opioid Abatement Fund and an Opioid Abatement Fund Committee to oversee the use of the monies for specific purposes and report to the Governor and the Legislature and the Attorney General on the outcome. The measure was proposed by Senators Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Dwayne M. DeGraff and Alma Francis Heyliger.
Bill No. 34-0383, an act appropriating $250,000 from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to the Virgin Islands Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation to be awarded as a grant to the friends of the Virgin Islands National Park to fund the second phase of the Cruz Bay playground revitalization project on Tract 01-132, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St John, Virgin Islands and appropriating $150,000 to the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation for the purpose of purchasing equipment to maintain the running track surface and for temporary isolation stables at the Clinton E. Phipps Racetrack on the island of St. Thomas. The measure was sponsored by Senators Angel L. Bolques, Jr. and Samuel CarriÃÅ’n Co-sponsors: Marvin A. Blyden, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Carla J. Joseph, Milton E. Potter, Janelle K. Sarauw, and Dwayne M. DeGraff.
Bill No. 34-0387, an act amending Official Zoning Map No. SCZ-7 for the island of St. Croix to change the zoning designation of Portion of the Remainder of Estate Beeston Hill (South Portion), Matricular No. 6a, Company Quarter, St. Croix from R-1 (Residential-Low Density) to B-3 (Business-Scattered). The measure was proposed by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens.
Bill No. 34-0344, an act amending Title 5, Chapter 314, section 3731 et seq. of the Virgin Islands Code, to expunge the criminal records of persons convicted for marijuana related crimes and offenses. The measure was proposed by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Genevieve R. Whitaker.
Bill No. 34-0361, an act amending Official Zoning Map No. STZ-9 to change the zoning designation of Parcel No. 173-A-66 Estate Annas Retreat, No. 1 New Quarter St. Thomas from R-2 (Residential Low Density-One and Two Family) to B-2 (Business-Secondary/Neighborhood). The measure was proposed by Senators Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., and Carla J. Joseph.
Bill No. 34-0080, An Act providing for the Legislature to hire a special investigator to conduct an investigation of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority and making an appropriation of $250,000 to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands to pay for the services of the special investigator. The measure was proposed by Senators Kenneth L. Gittens, Genevieve R. Whitaker, and Angel L. Bolques, Jr.
Bill No 34-0390, An Act approving the Lease Agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands, acting through its Commissioner of the Department of Property and Procurement, and St. Croix Majorettes, Inc. to lease the property known as The Enrique Romero Nieves American Legion Post No. 102 and the land adjacent, located at Remainder of Parcel No. 1 Estate PeterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Rest, Queen Quarter, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, for a practice center, headquarters, civic activities, and other related activities associated with the St. Croix Majorettes, Inc. The measure was proposed by Senator Donna A. Frett Gregory.
Bill No. 34-0391, an act approving the lease agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands, acting through its Commissioner of the Department of Property and Procurement, and the Enrique Nieves American Legion Post 102, for Parcel No. 1-C Estate PeterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Rest Queens Quarter, St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The measure was proposed by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory. The measure was proposed by Senator Donna A. Frett Gregory.
Bill No. 34-0396, an act granting a zoning use variance for Parcel No. 173B-88 Estate AnnaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Retreat, No. 1 New Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to allow for transitional housing facility. The measure was proposed by Senator Marvin A. Blyden.
Bill No. 34-0397, an act amending Act No. 8617 to increase the appropriation to the Frederiksted Health Care, Inc, to provide funding for the purchase of vehicles and for the homeless program and to the Department of Agriculture to supplement the drought subsidy for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2023. The measure was proposed by Senator Kurt A. Vialet.
Bill No. 34-0349, a resolution expressing the support of the Legislature of the Virgin Islands for U.S. House Resolution 279, acknowledging that the U.S. Supreme CourtÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Decision in the Insular Cases and the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Territorial Incorporation DoctrineÃ¢â‚¬Â are contrary to the text and the history of the United States Constitution as they rest on racial views and stereotypes from the era of Plessy v. Ferguson that have long been rejected as contrary to the United StatesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ most basic constitutional and democratic principles, and should be rejected as having no place in United States Constitutional Law. The measure was proposed by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker
Bill No. 34-0350, An Act amending Title 3 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 3, Section 27, relating to the Virgin Islands Commission on Youth, to reduce the number of members on the Commission from eleven to nine and to change the age requirements for membership on the Commission; appropriating $50,000 from the V.I. Education Initiative Fund for the initial operating expenses for the Commission; and providing for other related purposes. The measure was proposed by Senator Genevieve R. Whitaker.
Bill No. 34-0388, an act amending Title 3, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 25, Subchapter V, Section 555b increasing the minimum salary for employees of the Government of the Virgin Islands and its semi-autonomous agencies and independent instrumentalities. The measure was proposed by Senators Kurt A. Vialet, Angel L. Bolques, Jr, Samuel CarriÃƒÂ³n, Marvin A. Blyden, Dwayne M. Degraff, Kenneth L. Gittens, Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan E. James Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J Joseph, and Janelle K. Sarauw.
Bill No. 34-0153, an act establishing the Sixth Constitutional Convention of the Virgin Islands; and providing for an appropriation to cover convention-related expenses. The measure was sponsored by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Genevieve R. Whitaker.
Bill No. 34-0345, an act amending Title 19, Virgin Islands Code by adding Chapter 34A to expand the legalization of Cannabis from medicinal use to include Adult Use Cannabis. The measure was proposed by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Angel L. Bolques, Jr.
Bill No. 34-0298, an act appropriating $500,000 from the Emergency Services Fund to the Department of Health for the purposes authorized in 33 VIC Ã‚Â§ 3099(d). The measure was proposed by Senators Genevieve R. Whitaker, Alma Francis Heyliger, Dwayne M. Degraff, and Angel L. Bolques, Jr.
Senators present at todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Legislative Session included Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Marvin A. Blyden, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Samuel CarriÃƒÂ³n, Alma Francis Heyliger, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, Kurt A. Vialet, Janelle K. Sarauw, and Genevieve R. Whitaker.