33rd Legislature Marks Its First 100 Days
CHARLOTTE AMALIE — The 33rd Legislature has held 24 committee meetings and called for over 400 pieces of legislation during its first 100 days, Senate President Kenneth Gittens today.
The 15-member body was sworn into office on January 14, 2019.
“Groundbreaking policy measures, community outreach, dedicated oversight of government operations and unprecedented efforts to institute greater efficiency and accountability will mark the 33rd Legislature as one of the most productive to date,” Gittens said. “Senators have taken on many of the territory’s most challenging issues to include mental health care, crime, hurricane recovery and developing a viable U.S. Virgin Islands agriculture industry.”
The Senate’s second Legislative Session is scheduled for May 14 and 15.
“All the senators have worked well together and, thus far, the entire Body has truly lived up to the motto we adopted – Restoring Unity & Trust,” the Senate President said. “I remain proud of the dedication and diligence of my colleagues and grateful for the support of our constituents.”
Measures to ensure the proper expenditure of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ more than $700 million annual budget have been the focus of Senate Vice President Donna Frett-Gregory, who chairs the Legislature’s Finance Committee. In just 14 weeks the Finance Committee has considered eight pieces of legislation, met with Governor Albert A. Bryan’s Financial Team and begun the process of preparing the Fiscal Year 2020 Budget. Vice President Frett-Gregory said enacting measures to sustain the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) were also a Committee priority. The Vice President is the primary sponsor of legislation that will provide an additional $3 million annually to the retirement system from rum production revenues.
“I am focused and committed to working collaboratively with my colleagues to address the insolvency of GERS,” Senator Frett-Gregory said.
The 33rd Legislature’s President and Vice President praised the efforts of their colleagues and staff in the first 100 days in office and offered highlights of the Body’s myriad accomplishments. More detailed reports will be available from each Senator on the Legislature’s website and published in a booklet for archival purposes.
Rules Committee Moves Forward
The 33rd Legislature’s Rules & Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Alicia Barnes, has acted swiftly to vet the Governor’s nominees for cabinet and judicial appointments. Sixteen of these nominees have been scrutinized by the Rules Committee to date.
Senator Barnes, who also serves as the 33rd Legislature’s Secretary, said she remained focused on ensuring government efficiency and transparency.
“The 33rd Legislature has acted without delay on all matters before us,” Senator Barnes said. “Under no circumstances will this body be an impediment to progress.”
Senators have submitted more than 400 measures this term, said Majority Leader Marvin Blyden.
“There are some very meaningful proposals before us,” Senator Blyden said. “I must acknowledge not only my majority colleagues, but every member of this body for their hard work and the research they have put into many of these initiatives.”
A sample of bills proposed by 33rd Legislature include:
- Senator Kurt A. Vialet’s proposals to merge various government agencies in order to maximize efficiency.
- The Business Development Incentive Act of 2019, proposed by Senator Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, in order to expedite the process of obtaining a business license and to provide incentives for investors.
- A bill to prohibit the use of public funds to settle sexual harassment claims made against Government officials, sponsored by Senator Dwayne M. DeGraff.
- Legislation establishing higher standards for the construction and repair of roads, proposed by Senator-at-Large Steven D. Payne Sr.
- A resolution sponsored by Senator Stedmann Hodge Jr. to petition the U.S. Congress to return a portion of the gasoline excise taxes collected by the federal government to the Territory.
- A ban on sunscreens that are deadly to corals and other marine life, proposed by Senator Blyden.
- Legislation to establish 18 as the minimum age for marriage, sponsored by Senator Javan E. James Sr.
- Senator Myron D. Jackson’s proposal to establish a dedicated V.I. Office to Prevent Gun Violence to identify and mitigate violent conflicts using community-centered strategies.
- Legislation offered by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Novelle E. Francis that will amend and strengthen loitering laws in order to grant law enforcement officers additional tools to reduce crime.
- A bill to mandate source separation recycling, sponsored by Senator Gittens.
- Senator Oakland Benta’s bill to amend the free University of the Virgin Islands tuition statute so that students dislocated by the 2017 hurricanes are eligible.
Creating New Opportunities in Agriculture
Members of the 33rd Legislature have collectively offered numerous proposals to make agriculture a more viable industry in the territory.
Leading the charge, is St. Croix Senator Allison L. DeGazon, herself a farmer.
Ensuring farmers have adequate water for their crops and livestock through storm water management and well drilling is one of Senator DeGazon’s top priorities and she has already successfully introduced a gardening program in several elementary schools.
“I also worked to help reestablish the Senior Center Garden in Estate Richmond and met with Government House on updating St. Croix’s vegetable market,” she said.
Senator Francis, who remains an advocate for economic diversity, has proposed that 1 percent of the annual Executive Budget be earmarked for the support of farmers and agricultural programs. Additionally, Senator Payne is working on legislation to restrict the importation of animals that could pose a risk to local livestock and wildlife.
Additional measures proposed by members of the 33rd Legislature include a plan to increase revolving fund contributions to the Department of Agriculture.
Connecting with the Community
In the first 100 days members of the 33rd Legislature held numerous public hearings, town halls and constituent meetings and worked diligently to connect with their constituents via radio, social networks and the local media.
Committee on Culture & Planning Chairman, Senator Jackson, is among the many senators that have made school visits a priority this term. His educational presentations on Virgin Islands history and legislative initiatives have been well received by both students and faculty.
Senator Jackson has also worked with numerous churches and other organizations.
“I was pleased to recently partner with Community Action Now and other non-profits to clean up the historic neighborhoods of Long Path, Savan and Upstreet,” Senator Jackson said.
Earlier this year Senator James organized a cleanup of the Altona Lagoon Beach area on St. Croix and he continues to make community outreach among his highest priorities as Chairman of the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks & Recreation.
“It’s important to support initiatives that bring our families and communities together,” Senator James said. “We had more than 300 residents attend our Fun Day in April at the Pedro Cruz Ballpark.”
The Office of Senator Sarauw helped to organize two major events in her first 100 days of this term – raising more than $8,000 for school music programs and exposing students to careers in the field of stenography.
In support of Women’s History Month, Senator Frett-Gregory held a Women’s Roundtable event on March 29th to empower high school girls. The panel included women who hold key positions in politics and the private and public sectors.
Senator Thomas has prioritized initiatives that will positively impact both our youth and senior citizens. The Senator has made several school visits and recently spent a day with seniors on St. John assessing how to better address their needs, particularly in terms of accessing government services.
“Asking St. John residents, especially our seniors, to take both a taxi and a ferry in order to get assistance or make a payment with the Government will always be unacceptable,” he said. “We can and must do better.”
Senator Thomas and most of the St. Thomas-St. John District senators have established office hours to meet with constituents at the Legislative Annex in Cruz Bay. For details on St. John office hours contact (340) 776-6285. Senator Payne maintains a full-time office on St. John.
Making Mental Health a Priority
Recognizing the lack of adequate mental health care services available locally, members of the 33rd Legislature have numerous proposals to address this pressing issue. Chairman of the Committee on Health, Hospitals & Human Services, Senator Benta, organized a mental health care forum in cooperation with Senator DeGazon in April.
“We recognize there is a crisis right now in terms of mental health care and we held this forum in order to discuss problems and solutions,” Senator Benta said.
Senator Francis has proposed diverting funds from the planned mental health facility to the Department of Health so that the agency has the resources to immediately provide behavioral health services. Senator Barnes has also put forth legislation to establish an intergovernmental mental health patient services database in order to better assist those most needing care.
Hurricane Recovery Initiatives
Many of the public hearings held this term have focused on the status of various hurricane recovery projects, as well as on the current state of Government facilities. Senators have taken an active role in overseeing both hurricane preparedness efforts and recovery initiatives.
Members of the 33rd Legislature are particularly focused on the condition of the Territory’s schools, with Senator Hodge maintaining a seat on the New School Construction Advisory Board alongside Senator Vialet.
“We are planning for three new schools by 2024,” Senator Hodge said.
In addition to hosting Finance Committee meetings on the expenditure of disaster recovery funds, Senator Frett-Gregory traveled to Washington in April to meet with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to determine what steps the Virgin Islands could take to move recovery projects forward.
Setting a Higher Standard
Gittens said he has worked with the Legislature’s leadership and Executive Director Pamela C. Richards to establish new protocols for senators and staff to ensure greater efficiency and accountability.
“We must set the example in this regard,” the St. Croix senator said. “The primary reason I accepted the role of President is my desire to see the progression of this institution, which will in turn better the lives of the people we serve.”
New travel, expense and interoffice solicitation policies have all been established by the 33rdLegislature and Senator Gittens has asked the Office of the Inspector General to conduct an audit of the Legislature finances in order to identify and address deficiencies.
The Legislature staff has also been hard at work managing the renovation of the Senate’s new St. Croix facilities. Last term senators moved to purchase a building in Estate Golden Rock after it was determined that the offices at the Lagoon Street Complex could no longer be utilized. However, it largely fell on the 33rd Legislature to ready the new building for occupancy.
“This alone has been a tremendous undertaking,” Gittens said. “We look forward to welcoming our constituents to this new building and establishing a better working environment for staff before year’s end.”
Click here to visit the Legislature’s website.