Author: Africah Harrigan

BILL ESTABLISHING MEDICAL DOCTORAL PROGRAM SCHOLARSHIP MOVES FORWARD

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, met Tuesday at the Capitol Building. At that time, they voted favorably for several bills, including Bill No. 33-0134- An Act amending Title 17, chapter 15 of the Virgin Islands Code to establish a Psychiatric Medical Doctoral Program Scholarship. All approved items will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

“The bills that are before us today are focus forward to strengthen the future of the education system in the Virgin Islands,” said Sen. Frett-Gregory in her opening remarks.

The first measure seeks to establish the Virgin Islands Psychiatry Program Scholarships Fund in which the Virgin Islands Department of Education will administer to residents in the Territory who are pursuing a career in Psychiatry. The scholarship will be awarded to one recipient in both the St. Thomas-St. John District and the St. Croix District, not exceeding $40,000, for four academic years and applied to an accredited medical school along with its costs, to include tuition, books, supplies, academic fees, and lodging. Sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kurt Vialet said, “The Territory lacks an adequate number of psychiatrists. We need to create a pool of psychiatric care. Therefore, the bill provides a funding source for students attending medical school in which upon graduation, who will work in the Territory.”

The Virgin Islands Department of Health Commissioner, Justa Encarnacion, shared support for the bill, citing that the “scholarship paired with a commitment to provide services to the Department is critical in filling the void and will aid in establishing continued care for people in need of psychiatric services.” In response to a line of questioning by Sen. Donna Frett Gregory, Encarnacion stated that presently there is one full-time psychiatrist and one who is on contract. The Department is combating mental illness through assessments and treatments of eligible clients because not all homeless people suffer from mental illness. The Virgin Islands Board of Medical Examiners Chairman Frank Odlum, M.D. recommended that in addition to students, the scholarship should include existing psychiatrists by offering a partial loan repayment program. Sen. Stedman Hodge said, “The suggested method will attract a lot more psychiatrists to the Territory. Additionally, partial loan repayment allows the applicant to assume some responsibilities for their education.”

Separately, senators voted to hold in committee at the call of the Chair: Bill 33-0196- An Act amending Title 17, chapter 9, subchapter I, section 83 of the Virgin Islands Code by setting the beginning of the school day no earlier than 8:30 am. The V.I. Department of Education Commissioner Raquel Berry-Benjamin indicated that legislation is unnecessary in determining the start time for public schools. “VIDE prefers to remain in control of the daily operations, structure, and scheduling of the school day per public school,” said Berry-Benjamin. “I can’t say that I am for or against this measure,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet. “There are mixed reactions from high school students and the parents of elementary school students on St. Croix. A comprehensive study is required before changes.”

However, lawmakers voted and approved: Bill No. 33-0207- An Act amending Title 17, chapter 11, section 121 of the Virgin Islands Code by requiring persons teaching children in kindergarten-4 through third grade to have specific early childhood education requirements outlined by the Board of Education. Thereby ensuring that primary grade students receive a quality education; requiring the Board of Education to promulgate rules and regulations to support the criteria for the minimum requirements and providing funding for early childhood educators to obtain the minimum requirements.

Lastly, policymakers also voted favorably: Bill No. 33-0189- An Act amending Title 3, chapter 7 of the Virgin Islands Code by designating the existing sections as subchapter 1 and adding a new subchapter II establishing the Virgin Islands Virtual Information System.

Senators present are Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle Sarauw, Oakland Benta, Steven Hodge, Jr., Allison DeGazon, Kurt Vialet, and Novelle Francis.                                                                                                                                    ###

LAWMAKERS UPDATED ON THE STATUS OF THE HEMODIALYSIS UNIT

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services, chaired by Sen. Oakland Benta, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Friday, to receive testimony on the status of the Hemodialysis Unit at the Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC) and the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center (JFLH). Lawmakers also voted on several bills. All items approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

The Schneider Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Bernard Wheatley, M.D. indicated that post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria there was minimal damage to the Hemodialysis Unit in 2017. However, services offered at the unit was restored in 2018. Presently, the outpatient unit at SRMC comprises of fifteen dialysis stations, one isolation room, and adequate staff to include an on-call nurse who assists approximately 90 patients receiving acute and chronic treatments; according to Wheatley. Despite continued patient care, Wheatley mentioned that the hurricane disaster recovery process is delayed due to the lack of funding. “SRMC is still awaiting the final disposition of a settlement agreement between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Witt O’Brien, and the Government Agencies. However, once the level of funding is finalized, plans for the reconstruction of SRMC, the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute, and the Myrah Keating Community Health Center will commence,” said Wheatley.

Unlike SRMC, the Hemodialysis Unit at the Juan F. Luis Hospital sustained severe damages after the storms. As a result, patients were evacuated to the United States for continued care according to Tasnim Khan, M.D., Director of the Hemodialysis Unit at JFLH.  In response to a line of questioning by Sen. Kenneth Gittens, Kahn stated that twelve patients died after the storms and dialysis treatments resumed in 2018. Currently, JFLH is providing treatments to 90 hemodialysis patients in one out of two temporary dialysis trailers contracted and provided by the Federal Government. The second trailer is expected to be operable in a few weeks; pending safety inspections and required equipment. Johan Coto, Hemodialysis Patient at JFLH shared challenges that patients endure. “The biggest hurdle facing dialysis patients is the constant opposition from the current administration at JFLH. As patients, we try to be a part of the process in terms of treatment facilities yet there is a lack of response to the information requested by patients to the administration. There is no attempt to be transparent,” expressed Coto, who suffers from renal failure for 21 years and is a patient at JFLH for the past 15 years. “This discussion leaves me with a heavy heart because everyone is an episode away from illness,” said Senate President Novelle Francis. “We as leaders have to provide our people with hope to bring relief and services to them.  Stakeholders must collaborate to address the concerns discussed in this hearing.”

Furthermore, senators expressed the importance of strong leadership in the Virgin Islands Healthcare Industry. Sen. Benta said, “Solid leadership is required to ensure patient care is a smooth and transparent process. The administration at Juan F. Luis Hospital must collaborate with stakeholders to improve patient care.” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory stated that “There is a facade that life is good, and it is not because Virgin Islanders are not receiving adequate healthcare.”

Separately, the senators voted and approved: Bill No. 33-0095 – An Act amending title 34 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new chapter 18 enacting the “Virgin Islands Medicaid Program Integrity Act.

However, lawmakers voted to hold in committee at the call of the Chair: Bill No. 33-0024 – An Act to require the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health to solicit proposals for the selection of a management company to partner with the Government of the Virgin Islands to provide administrative oversight services for assisted living and mental health facilities in the Virgin Islands.        

Lastly, the following was removed off the agenda: Bill No. 33-0118 – An Act amending Title 19, part IV, chapter 53, subchapter II, of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new section 1441 requiring that all restaurants list major food allergens on their menu or menu board.                                                                    ###

SENATORS UPDATED ON THE STATUS OF THE DISASTER RECOVERY PROCESS

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the 33rd Legislature led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr., convened in Committee of the Whole at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, to receive an update on the territory’s recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Representatives from the Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery, the V.I. Housing Finance Authority (VIFHA), APTIM Corporation, AECOM, Witt O’Brien and Ernst and Young all participated in a robust discussion on the territory’s disaster recovery since the September 2017 storms.  

In his opening remarks Sen. Francis said, “Two years have passed since the occurrence of both storms. Some residents have expressed that Hurricane Recovery is making good progress. However, others feel as though they are left behind. The burning question is where we are and what does the recovery process look like moving forward?”

Adrienne Williams-Octalien, Director of the Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery spoke extensively about the role of the newly formed agency and its efforts to manage both disaster funding and support the recovery process throughout government. Williams-Octalien addressed the matter of long-delayed vendor and subcontractor payments, which she said resulted from the fact that only some of the promised federal monies have been received. According to Williams-Octalien, thus far $1.88 billion out of $5 billion was received from the FEMA Public Assistance Grant Program. The FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program received $63.1 million out of $461.9 million, and the Department of Transportation FHWRA-ER Program received $36.5 million out of $48.3 million. In response to Sen. Dwayne DeGraff’s inquiry concerning obtaining remaining grant monies, Director Octalien indicated that to receive the balance, all the Project Worksheets must be written in coordination with government agencies, cost estimates for construction per project must be provided, and the policies/procedures of FEMA must be implemented.

Outstanding payments to vendors and subcontractors was a recurring theme throughout the hearing. In a line of questioning, Sen. Francis drilled down about the amount of monies earmarked out of the $1.8 billion for contractors. VIFHA Executive Director Daryl Griffith stated that approximately $5 million were payments to contractors to get grant approval to obtain the Community Development Block Grant. Separately, Director Griffith noted that under the Emergency Home Repair VI also known as the FEMA Step Program, over 24,000 homes were repaired post-hurricanes. This included the temporary and permanent repairs necessary for Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the program. Although $237 million was paid to contractors, VIHFA owes AECOM and APTIM an estimated $779 million. Nonetheless, despite the work of VIHFA, the homes of many residents remain damaged. “I am very concerned particularly about the many Virgin Islanders that are still living in damaged or partially repaired homes. We would have been better off just dividing the home repair funds amongst local homeowners instead of the millions paid out to off-island contractors and inept subcontractors,” said Sen. Kenneth Gittens. Echoing his colleagues’ sentiment, Sen. Francis said, “I have constituents with blue roofs over their heads. We sit here and talk about millions owed while my people suffer. I hope that you feel good about that.”

Neither Griffith nor Williams-Octalien were able to provide the amounts owed to vendors.  Regarding payments to vendors, Director Williams-Octalien stated that there are delays due to the lack of accurate documentation and challenges with the procurement and contract process. “The implication of failing to have adequate documentation is the de-obligation of funds and unfavorable audits may require the Territory to repay grant funding,” she noted.  Furthermore, AECOM Corporate Program Manager Leo O’Shea mentioned that the delay in funding and payments has hindered the ability to flow cash down to local businesses and subcontractors despite the completion of services such as the installation of 250 modular buildings and 11 Sprung Structures for the Virgin Islands Department of Education Facilities Program. Similarly, APTIM Chief Financial Officer Jon Grant indicated that a total of $170 million in payments are owed to the company for the completion of schools, providing temporary repairs for the Governor Juan Luis Project and for the completed work for the EHRVI Program. The lack of monies also restricts APTIM’s ability to pay local subcontractors. Sen. Oakland Benta said, “The vendors and local contractors are a priority and have to be taken care of, for the goods and services they provided out of their pockets to serve this community in our desperate times of need.”

Sen. Francis mentioned that initially major companies partaking in the Disaster Recovery process were a symbol of hope and now things have changed. “Post-hurricanes we were excited and had hope that our community will be rebuilt. We assured our constituents that we will get our residents back to comfortable living conditions to meet their needs. Today, we are traumatized.” He continued, “All I am hearing about in this meeting is dollars and cents. For weeks after the storms, our constituents had to endure when it rained continuously upon their breached roofs. Contractors were provided with the best homes while doing the work in the Territory. It initially seemed like good faith efforts to rebuild the Virgin Islands. Then something changed and there was a notion that money can be made in the Virgin Islands. All we are asking for is a solid return on our investments.”                                  ###

ONE OUT OF TWO NOMINATIONS FOR THE V.I. CANNABIS ADVISORY BOARD, THE V.I. TAXICAB COMMISSION, AND BILLS MOVES FORWARD

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, and voted to hold in committee the nomination of the V.I. Department of Agriculture Commissioner Positive T.A. Nelson to serve on the V.I. Cannabis Board. However, the nomination for The V.I. Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Nicole Craigwell-Syms, Ph.D. to serve as a member of the V.I. Cannabis Advisory Board advanced. Senators also voted favorably for three nominees to serve on the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission and for several bills. The nominations were sent to the Legislature by Governor Albert Bryan; set forth from Section (16) of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, and Title 3, Section 65a of the Virgin Islands Code. All items approved will be forwarded to the full body for further consideration.

Nominee Nelson noted that his years of experience, skills, and advocacy to promote the use of medicinal cannabis has equipped him to serve on the Virgin Islands Cannabis Advisory Board. Furthermore, he stated that thirty-four states across the United States, two U.S. territories, and one Commonwealth have legalized the use of medicinal marijuana. However, senators stated that interisland transporting of that type of medicine may infringe upon Federal Laws. “The interisland transportation of medicinal cannabis in Federal Zones can lead to legal problems for our residents,” said Sen. Sarauw. Similarly, Sen. Kenneth Gittens noted that “It is important that law-abiding Virgin Islanders do not end up on the wrong side of the law who are employed in the Medicinal Cannabis Industry.” Nominee Nelson mentioned that only authorized commercial vessels with legal documentation can transport medicinal cannabis. The law remains that it is illegal for a private boat to smuggle marijuana into the Territory. Ultimately, the nomination was held in committee for further investigation of “conflict of interest” in lieu of the laws.

Nominee Nicole Craigwell-Syms, Ph.D. indicated that educating the community by distinguishing the difference of medicinal cannabis and recreational use is a priority. “The Board should also develop education and certification requirements to work in that industry,” added Sen. Javan James. Craigwell-Syms, Ph.D. mentioned that additional goals are to determine patient qualifications and applicable measurement required for prescriptions per diagnosis. Furthermore, she stated that there is a reduction of opioid addictions in the States that offer medicinal cannabis as an alternative treatment method.

Separately, policymakers voted favorably for the nominations of Loretta Lloyd, Vincent Georges, and Myrna George to serve as members on the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission. The nominees collectively expressed tackling present challenges such as the unloading of passengers in the middle of traffic, the competition of gypsy cabs, and joining the overpopulated taxicab lines at the airport. Sen. Novelle Francis said, “Taxicab Drivers are Ambassadors of the Virgin Islands yet some of them continue to fly flags of other nations on their vehicles. It’s counterproductive to the Tourism product. Policies and Procedures must be in place for proper representation of the Territory.” Senators recommended that the Taxicab Commission offer passengers an electronic option for payment.

Lastly, Policymakers voted and approved the following measures:

  • Bill No. 33-0116 – An Act amending Title 32 of the Virgin Islands Code as it relates to the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission.
  • Bill No. 33-0033 – An Act to add a new section to title 3, chapter 16 of the Virgin Islands Code, to reenact the Virgin Islands Tax Study Commission which will be tasked with reviewing the current laws and tax structure of the Virgin Islands for initiating tax reform and maximizing revenue fairly and impartially.
  • Bill No. 33-0122 – An Act amending Title 7, chapter 1, subchapter 1, section 2 of the Virgin Islands code by expanding the definition of farming and by adding current industry standard terminology.
  • Bill No. 33-0123 – An Act to earmark a percentage of the Government of the Virgin Islands budget to support local agriculture.
  • Bill No. 33-0068 – An Act to amend title 20, part II, chapter 32, subchapter I of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new section to create a process for transferring a vehicle upon the death of an individual, without going through the probate process.

However, the following were held in committee:

  • Bill No. 33-0100 – An Act amending title 20, part II, chapter 39, section 436(b)(1) of the Virgin Islands Code by including persons who are disabled within the class of persons exempt from being charged a fee for a disabled window decal.
  • Bill No. 33-0151 – An Act amending title 15, part II, chapter 11, section 167 of the Virgin Islands Code by increasing the threshold for summary administration of estates in the Virgin Islands.

Senators present are Janelle Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James, Donna Frett-Gregory, Novelle Francis, Kurt Vialet, and Myron Jackson.

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BILL TO AWARD VAL AND SAL OF ADULT EDUCATION AND OTHERS HELD IN COMMITTEE

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, met Wednesday at the Capitol Building and voted to hold in committee at the call of the chair, Bill No. 33-0102 to include graduates of the Adult Education Center among those eligible to receive a scholarship as valedictorian and salutatorian. Senators also voted on additional measures and received testimony on the status of the Virgin Islands Department of Labor (VIDOL). All approved items will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Sponsor of Bill No. 33-0102, Sen. Allison DeGazon, stated that the legislation is simple yet impactful. “It is a common practice that graduated valedictorians and salutatorians from traditional schools are awarded a scholarship. However, this opportunity should extend to all Adult Education Programs.” Similarly, the Virgin Islands Board of Education Executive Director Milton Potter said, “codifying ensures that graduates from the Adult Education Programs remain on equal footing with their counterparts from traditional education programs.”

Furthermore, the Virgin Islands Department of Education Commissioner Raquel Berry-Benjamin indicated that although the Department supports the bill, the language should be changed for the inclusion of valedictorians and salutatorians graduating from all Adult Education Programs in the Virgin Islands. “The language of the bill needs to be adjusted from the Adult Education Center to state Adult Education Programs,” she recommended.

Presently, the Virgin Islands Board of Education has issued a total of $25,500 in scholarship funds to valedictorians and $17,000 to salutatorian to local students attending the University of the Virgin Islands. The breakdown is as follows: Valedictorians receive $1,000 per person and $700 for salutatorian per person. However, qualifying students who pursue undergraduate programs at colleges and universities off-island have yet to be awarded scholarship monies due to the lack of funds. As a result, there is an unused balance that accumulates annually in the account, according to the Virgin Islands Board of Education Financial Aid Expert, Sylvanie Rhymer.

In response to Sen. Kurt Vialet’s inquiry regarding the amount of the unused balance, Executive Director Potter stated that the information is unavailable for the hearing today. “I am lost as of why, if the law states that once a program is not offered at the University of the Virgin Islands, a student can use scholarship monies to study at an educational institution abroad. However, scholarship funds have yet to be issued to them. We have to do right by our students,” said Sen. Frett-Gregory. Ultimately, senators voted to hold the bill in committee at the call of the chair.

Separately, policymakers voted and approved Bill No. 33-0019- An Act amending Title 17, chapter 7, section 61a of the Virgin Islands Code regarding the school year. However, senators voted to hold in committee Bill No. 33-0131- An Act amending Title 17, chapter 5 of the Virgin Islands Code by inserting a new section 41g requiring the completion of a minimum of ten community service hours at a senior center or home for the aged for graduation from a public high school.

Lastly, the Virgin Islands Department of Labor Commissioner Gary Malloy shared an update. Regarding the Disaster Dislocated Worker Grant Program, VIDOL was awarded $3,000,000,000 from Federal Emergency Management Agency and has an unexpended balance of $292,000. Although, the original end date of the program was September 2019, VIDOL was granted an extension until March 2020. Furthermore, VIDOL Assistant Commissioner Cindy Richardson mentioned that the V.I. Unemployment Insurance Programs are in the process of modernizing operations to increase automation for Unemployment Insurance compensation processes for the Tax Unit. The Benefits Unit disseminated a total of $7,421,703 to 1,255 claimants as of August 2019 for the Regular Unemployment Insurance; and a total of $3,354,827 was disbursed for Extended Benefits. Lastly, Richardson indicated that VIDOL recently completed the Single Audit but there were findings. Presently, VIDOL is in the process of addressing each one.   

Senators present are Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James, Steven Hodge, Jr., Allison DeGazon, Kurt Vialet, and Marvin Blyden.   

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LAWMAKERS HONOR THE LATE LEE VANTERPOOL, RECEIVE UPDATES ON MAIN STREET AND VETERANS DRIVE REVITALIZATION, & ADVANCE FLAG DAY BILL

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging chaired by Sen. Myron Jackson convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday, and voted favorably for Bill No. 33-0113- A Resolution posthumously honoring and recognizing Lee “Lee Vee” Vanterpool for his outstanding contributions to the Virgin Islands as a media professional. Lawmakers also received an update on the Main Street Revitalization and Veterans Drive Highway Project. Lastly, senators voted and approved Bill No. 33-0117 to establish the Virgin Islands Flag Day. All items approved will be forwarded to the Committee of Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Firstly, Bill No. 33-0113 seeks to posthumously honor and commend Lee “Lee Vee” Vanterpool, a native son, for contributions to the Virgin Islands community as a consummate media professional and mentor, and for his contribution of time and professional skills to numerous nonprofit organizations and events that benefitted the Virgin Islands community. “Lee Vanterpool was a media giant. He was the Walter Cronkite of the Virgin Islands. He was amongst the best media professionals,” said Sen. Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, sponsor of the bill. Sen. Dwayne DeGraff mentioned there is no greater honor than honoring your own.

In addition to television and radio broadcasting, Vanterpool had an opportunity to work for media services for both the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch of government. Furthermore, Vanterpool was an actor and dancer of the performing arts. In his spare time, he volunteered for various charitable events and served as a mentor to young people who were interested in pursuing a career in on-air broadcasting. “Lee will be forever remembered as the consummate media professional.The legacy of our beloved brother Lee is one of love for the Virgin Islands. His love, compassion, wisdom, and service are a testament to his legacy,” said Lee Vanterpool’s Brother Mel Vanterpool.  

Furthermore, Sen. Jackson said, “Lee had an impactful voice and presence in which he was often requested as Master of Ceremonies. Lee also assisted in establishing the Buddhist religion in the Virgin Islands. Lee’s contributions to the arts were significant; especially as a male dancer in the professional arena.”

Separately, the Department of Public Works (DPW) Commissioner Nelson Petty shared an update on the status of the Main Street Revitalization Project and Veterans Drive Highway Project. Commissioner Petty indicated that August 2020 is the scheduled date of completion for the project. To date, progress is inclusive of the installation of sidewalks, electrical lines, storm drains, manholes, portable water lines, and communication conduits on both the western and northern sections of Store Tvaer Gade to Guttets Gade, according to Commissioner Petty. The Water and Power Authority Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Kupfer mentioned that although DPW completed work for underground infrastructure at the Main Street/Store Tvaer, remaining work at Store Tvaer Gade and Raadets Gade are still incomplete. Regarding water distribution, Director Kupfer noted that Island Roads is slated to replace water service lines and meter boxes. Afterward, WAPA will inspect water lines to ensure compliance with the standards of the American Water Works Association. 

Regarding the Veterans Drive Improvement Enhancement, Commissioner Petty stated that sixty-three percent of Phase 1 is completed and ahead of schedule. Some aspects of this phase consist of seawall construction, roadway widening, pavement reconstruction, and draining improvements. To date, $24 million was expended out of a contract worth $42.9 million. Phase 2 is still in the design process.

Lastly, senators voted and approved Bill No. 33-0117 – An Act amending Title 1, chapter 11 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new section 200k establishing the Virgin Islands Flag Day. The measure seeks to annually designate May 17th as the V.I. Flag Day” in recognition of the day the Virgin Islands flag was adopted. “Like a Virgin Islander, I am a strong believer in national pride. It is with great respect and pride that the Virgin Islands Flag is held at the highest esteem,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet, sponsor of the bill.

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LAWMAKERS UPDATED ON THE STATUS OF V.I. HORSE RACING COMMISSION & THE DEPARTMENT OF SPORTS, PARKS, AND RECREATION

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks and Recreation chaired by Sen. Javan James, Sr., convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Friday, to receive testimony on the status of the V.I. Horse Racing Commission and the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation (DSPR). Lawmakers also voted and approved Bill No. 30-0116 regarding the Horse Racing Commission. All measures approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Thus far, the status of the leadership position of Chairman of the Horse Racing Commission has yet to be determined. Although the Board voted for Dr. Laura Palminteri to become the new chairperson on August 2019, the votes were challenged by sitting Chairman Jay Watson citing an illegal vote won by a simple majority instead of two-thirds majority; or in legal terms, a violation of the Robert’s Rule of Order, adopted by the Commission on February 2019. Presently, legal council is reviewing the matter and is responsible for selecting a chairperson; according to a written document submitted to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands by Dr. Palminteri that was read into the record by Horse Racing Commission Board Member Shane Benjamin.

Defending his allegations, Watson indicated that the votes were questionable. “The main issue is whether the rules, processes and the laws established for the efficient operation of the Commission were followed and they were not.” Sen. James stated that the Horse Racing Commission must resolve internal issues and work as a team for the benefit of the Commission. Similarly, Sen. Vialet also expressed disapproval of the lack of leadership in the Commission. “We are going to have to get over this hump by putting egos and personalities aside. If this doesn’t work, legislation can be drafted to get rid of everyone and completely start over,” said Sen. Vialet. “We need to move forward, develop plans, have interim horse races, determine the minimum requirements to hold races so that the Horse Racing Industry can continue to progress.”

Collectively, policymakers questioned the necessary steps to move the Commission forward. Horse Racing Commission Board Member Sheldon Turnbull mentioned that there is a sense of urgency to reinstate horse racing in the Territory by upgrading the infrastructure of the race tracks in both districts by following the standards required for professional horse racing, update anti-doping regulations, and to review policies.

The Department of Sports, Park and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White shared the status on various projects. Currently, there are a total of 61 FEMA Projects throughout the Virgin Islands. The top two projects are the Vincent Mason Pool on St. Croix estimated at $3.7 million and the Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas estimated at $4.1 million. The Coki Point Beach Project consists of adding rental booths, upgrading the boardwalk and bathroom facilities. Post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria, DSPR invested $20K to purchase several 1500w bulbs for fields and 1000w for basketball courts. The installation of light bulbs has already begun. DSPR continues to collaborate with private/public partnerships for the progression of public areas under their jurisdiction Teritorywide. Some of the things achieved through the partnership include reinstalling damaged benches on St. Thomas, supplying rakes and materials for beach clean-ups on St. Croix, and donating essential furniture for the DSPR Summer Camp on St. John.

Separately, policymakers voted favorably for Bill No. 33-0116-An Act amending Title 32 of the Virgin Islands Code as it relates to the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Commission. The measure seeks to establish district requirements for the Chairman and Vice-Chairman and a due date for the franchise financial obligation. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Vialet.

Senators present are Javan James, Sr., Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, Dwayne DeGraff, Alicia Barnes, Myron Jackson, Oakland Benta, and Steven Payne.                                                                                                ###

GESC SHARES THE GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES RENEWAL OF THE HEALTH AND DENTAL INSURANCE PLAN

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the 33rd Legislature led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr., convened in Committee of the Whole at the Capitol Building on Thursday, to receive testimony on the renewal of the government’s Health and Dental Insurance agreement for active employees, their dependents and retirees under 65. The current agreement expires on September 30, 2019.

Representatives from the Government Employees Service Commission (GESC), Division of Personnel, CIGNA , Equicare and United Health Care were present to testify on the health and dental insurance agreements. Beverly Joseph, Chairperson of the GESC said that the GESC and its consultant, The Gehring Group, worked hard to ensure that there would be no changes to the plan’s coverage and negotiated with CIGNA to reduce a FY 2020 renewal rate increase from 25.2% to 12.85%. The FY 2020 plan maintains the current 65% paid by GVI and 35% paid by employees and retirees and also expands Cigna’s worksite insurance products.

In comparison to $154.4 million in FY 2019, the Health Insurance Coverage Plan increased to $170.8 million for FY 2020, according to Joseph. This increase of $16.3 million is largely attributed to rising medical claims. For example, the amount paid out in claims for the past 11 months is estimated at $126 million and by the end of the fiscal year, those numbers are expected to increase. In previous years, the Legislature appropriated funds to remove the burden of any increases from the employees. The Legislature has appropriated funds in the FY 2020 to once again keep the increases in insurance premiums from being passed on to the employees.

Sen. Oakland Benta stated that in comparison to the mainland, healthcare in the Virgin Islands is almost three times the amount. “Residents of the Virgin Islands are charged excessively and there is no clear indicator as to why. Our premium goes up because of the cost of services being provided by local physicians.” In response to an inquiry from Sen. Novelle Francis about the causes for the increase in medical claims. Joseph noted that there is a rise in catastrophic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, muscular skeleton, and heart disease in the territory. Cigna Client Manager Dorothyann Callahan added that as a result, there are monthly claims estimated at $25,000 for either employee or their dependents. Most of the claimants are 44 to 65 years old. The increase in medical illnesses and claims are some of the contributing factors to the overall increase in the FY 2020 Cigna HealthCare Insurance Plan.

Members of the 33rd Legislature encouraged the GESC to do more public education about the range of benefits and programs available to beneficiaries, to include wellness initiatives and employee assistance programs.

CIGNA has also committed to provide $700,000 for the Wellness Incentive Program, two full time customer service representatives available for policyholders, the Omada Pre-Diabetes Program, two Health Improvement Offices staffed with four nurses, the Motivate Me Incentive Program that offers rewards to employees who take care of their health, performance guarantees that place 1% of premium at risk if performance metrics are not achieved, and six two year Nursing Scholarships totaling $75,000 over a period of five years. ###

FY 2020 BUDGET BILLS MOVE FORWARD

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Finance chaired by Sen. Kurt Vialet, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday and voted favorably for the FY 2020 Budget Bills. All measures approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Some of the items included in the FY 2020 budget are $10 million to begin to pay retirees for the retroactive payment and the monies to pay off the claim regarding the outstanding case of Harvey vs. the Government of the Virgin Islands. This was achieved without receiving judgment on the Excise Tax Case, according to Sen. Vialet.

 Additionally, Sen. Vialet mentioned that the budget also addresses the conservative projections from the Senate; such as the increased projections for the Internal Revenue turnover and the concession from the Lime Tree Bay to be received because of the January 1st, 2020 opening of the refinery. However, he noted that the FY 2020 budget does not include the Government of the Virgin Islands going to the market and lending money.

 Policymakers shared their remarks as it relates to the FY 2020 budget process. “Many of my colleagues went through the budget step by step to ensure that every agency in the government needs and concerns were addressed,” said Sen. Oakland Benta. “It was important to bring light to the government on a whole. We vetted each of the agencies’ request and dug into how the agencies were handling their fiduciary responsibilities.”

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory stated that despite the budget process being long and arduous determining the FY 2020 budget was achieved. “I want to thank the Chair for allowing us to drill down by asking relevant questions throughout the entire Budget Season. Ultimately, we were able to come up with a responsible budget for the Government of the Virgin Islands.”

Lawmakers voted and approved the following:

  • BILL NO. 33-0157 AN ACT MAKING APPROPRIATIONS FOR THE OPERATION OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0158 AN ACT APPROPRIATING FUNDS FOR THE OPERATING EXPENSES AND CAPITAL PROJECTS FOR THE LEGISLATURE OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0159 AN ACT PROVIDING APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS, THE JUDICIAL COUNCIL AND THE OFFICE OF THE TERRITORIAL PUBLIC DEFENDER.
  • BILL NO. 33-0160 TO APPROPRIATE MONIES FROM THE ANTI-LITTER AND BEAUTIFICATION FUND TO THE WASTE MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0161 AN ACT PROVIDING APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS BOARD OF EDUCATION FROM THE GENERAL FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0162 TO PROVIDE AN APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE BUSINESS AND COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES REVOLVING FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0163 TO PROVIDE AN APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE BUREAU OF MOTOR VEHICLES OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0164 TO PROVIDE AN APPROPRIATION FROM THE CARIBBEAN BASIN INITIATIVE FUND FOR FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0165 AN ACT PROVIDING APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS CAREER AND TECHNICAL EDUCATION BOARD FROM THE GENERAL FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0166 AN ACT APPROPRIATING MONIES FOR SALARIES AND EXPENSES OF THE BOARD OF ELECTIONS AND THE OFFICE OF THE SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.  BILL NO. 33-0167 TO APPROPRIATE FUNDS FROM THE GOVERNMENT INSURANCE FUND FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE AND THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0168 TO PROVIDE FOR THE LUMP SUM APPROPRIATION FROM THE HEALTH REVOLVING FUND FOR FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0169 AN ACT PROVIDING APPROPRIATIONS FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE HOSPITAL AND HEALTH FACILITIES CORPORATION FROM THE GENERAL FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30,2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0170 TO PROVIDE FOR THE LUMP SUM APPROPRIATION FROM THE INDIRECT COST FUND FOR SALARIES, OPERATING EXPENSES AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES, OF THE OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET, THE DIVISION OF PERSONNEL, THE DEPARTMENT OF PROPERTY AND PROCUREMENT AND THE DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE FOR THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0171 AN ACT PROVIDING APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS OFFICE OF THE INSPECTOR GENERAL FROM THE GENERAL FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0172 TO APPROPRIATE THE SUM OF $5,000,000 FROM THE V.I. INSURANCE GUARANTY FUND AS A CONTRIBUTION TO THE GENERAL FUND FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0173 TO APPROPRIATE THE SUM OF $1,100,000 FROM THE INTEREST EARNED ON DEBT SERVICES RESERVES AS A CONTRIBUTION TO THE GENERAL FUND. BILL NO. 33-0174 TO APPROPRIATE FUNDS TO THE PUBLIC SERVICES COMMISSION FOR THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020 FOR OPERATING EXPENSES.
  • BILL NO. 33-0175 TO APPROPRIATE THE SUM OF $2,000,000 FROM THE INTERNAL REVENUE MATCHING FUND AS A CONTRIBUTION TO THE ST. CROIX CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT FUND FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0176 AN ACT TO PROVIDE AN APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS AND THE WASTE MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY FROM THE ST. JOHN CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0177 TO PROVIDE AN APPROPRIATION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE WASTE MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY FROM THE SEWAGE SYSTEM FUND OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0178 TO APPROPRIATE FUNDS TO THE VIRGIN ISLANDS TAXICAB COMMISSION FOR THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020 FOR OPERATING EXPENSES.
  • BILL NO. 33-0179 TO PROVIDE FOR AN APPROPRIATION FROM THE TOURISM ADVERTISING REVOLVING FUND TO THE OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR, VIRGIN ISLANDS POLICE DEPARTMENT, THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS, THE VIRGIN ISLANDS WASTE MANAGEMENT AGENCY AND THE DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0180 TO PROVIDE FOR AN APPROPRIATION FROM THE TOURISM ADVERTISING REVOLVING FUND TO THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND DEPARTMENT OF SPORTS, PARKS AND RECREATION DURING THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0181 TO APPROPRIATE THE SUM OF $4,000,000 FROM THE TOURISM ADVERTISING REVOLVING FUND AS A CONTRIBUTION TO THE GENERAL FUND FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0182 TO APPROPRIATE THE SUM OF $10,000,000 FROM THE TRANSPORTATION TRUST FUND AS A CONTRIBUTION TO THE GENERAL FUND FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0183 TO PROVIDE FOR THE OPERATING EXPENSES OF THE PUBLIC EMPLOYEES RELATIONS BOARD AND THE LABOR MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE FOR FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 TO SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0184 TO APPROPRIATE MONIES FOR SALARIES AND EXPENSES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020 AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
  • BILL NO. 33-0185 TO APPROPRIATE MONIES FOR SALARIES AND EXPENSES FROM THE GENERAL FUND TO THE VIRGIN ISLANDS WASTE MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY FOR THE FISCAL YEAR ENDING SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0186 TO PROVIDE APPROPRIATIONS FROM THE INTERNAL REVENUE MATCHING FUND FOR THE FISCAL YEAR OCTOBER 1, 2019 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
  • BILL NO. 33-0187 AN ACT AMENDING THE VIRGIN ISLANDS CODE, TITLE 22, CHAPTER 10, SECTION 237(A)(3) (A) AND TITLE 33, CHAPTER 111, SECTION 3061 RELATING TO THE BALANCE IN THE INSURANCE GUARANTY FUND TO AMEND THE CURRENTLY REQUIRED $10,000,000 AMOUNT, WHICH IS SET TO INCREASE TO $50,000,000 ON SEPTEMBER 30, 2020, TO $20,000,000.   

Senators present at the meeting were: Kurt Vialet, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett-Gregory, Marvin Blyden, Janelle Sarauw, Allison DeGazon, and Oakland Benta.

BILL TO STREAMLINE THE PROCESS TO OBTAIN A CZM PERMIT AND OTHER PURPOSES HELD IN COMMITTEE

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Government Operations, Consumer Affairs, Energy, Environment, and Planning chaired by Sen. Alicia Barnes, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, to receive testimony and voted on several measures including Bill No. 33-0105- to reduce the amount of time required to evaluate and issue CZM permits, to reduce the time for the review of Board of Land Use Appeals, and other purposes. Ultimately, lawmakers voted to hold the bill in committee for further consideration. All measures approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Sen. Barnes, one of the sponsors of the measure shared her remarks on the bill. “We cannot continue to have outdated and antiquated methods of doing business in today’s work environment. It is important to capture the process in real-time. The bill expedites and streamlines the process for the issuance for obtaining minor and major CZM permits.”

The measure seeks to update the Virgin Islands Coastal Zone Management by: (1) updating the chapter to reflect the current name of the department, (2) increasing the term and per diem of members of the Coastal Zone Management Commission, (3) modifying some of the standards for the issuance of coastal zone permits, (4) modifying some of the requirements for the issuance of permits for the development or occupancy of trust lands or other submerged or filled lands, and (5) decreasing the time period for filing an appeal with the Board of Land Use Appeals and decreasing the time-period within which the Board of Land Use Appeals must hold a public hearing on an appeal. Senators who also proposed the bill are Kurt Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Javan James, Sr., Steven Payne, Sr., and Janelle Sarauw.

The Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol mentioned that overall DPNR supports the bill. However, the section of the bill that seeks to reduce the members of the CZM Commission should be amended. “DPNR cannot support this change. Quorums are the main issue for the Committees. Rather than reducing members for the Commission, it is best to fill the vacant seats. This will reduce the likelihood of actions being taken by default for lack of a quorum for the Committees.” Similarly, the Board of Land Use Appeals Chairman John Woods noted that shortening the time for filing an appeal with the Board is challenging due to the lack of a full complement of members serving on the CZM Commission and the Board of Land Use Appeals.

Separately, lawmakers considered and voted to hold in committee at the call of the Chair: Bill No. 33-0108 – An Act amending Title 12, Chapter 10, Section 402 of the Virgin Islands Code by requiring owners of shoreline property to provide the public with suitable access to the shorelines, imposing fines for failure to comply with this requirement, and granting the Department of Planning and Natural Resources enforcement and investigative authority regarding shoreline access. Sponsors of the bill are senators Janelle Sarauw, Novelle Francis, Jr., and Kurt Vialet. Sen. Alicia Barnes co-sponsored the bill.

Sen. Janelle Sarauw indicated that residents of the Virgin Islands should not be regulated to visiting just a few beaches and shorelines but access to both should be available to the public. “Regardless of the economic status, gender, and race, I believe that the shoreline and beaches should be accessible to all Virgin Islanders. Unfortunately, what is happening is that there are instances in which some private property owners are circumventing the law to prevent locals from accessing public beaches and/or shorelines.”   

DPNR Commissioner Oriol mentioned that although the measure has good intent there needs to be additional clarity in the language of the bill. Otherwise, the implementation will be very challenging. Furthermore, Oriol noted that while DPNR supports free access to the shoreline for all residents and guests, the bill has several issues from qualifying criteria for access and defining the legal rights of property owners. Presently, the bill cannot withstand the “takings” test under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

Similarly, the following measures were also held in committee for further review:

  • Bill No. 33-0111 – An Act amending Title 19, part VI, of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new chapter 56B requiring that the Waste Management Authority designate disposal sites throughout the Territory for waste tires and creating the Waste Tire Management and Disposal Fund.
  • Bill No. 33-0103- An Act amending the following provisions of the Virgin Islands Code: (1) Title 3, Chapter 25, subchapter VI, by adding a new section 583d providing for maternity, paternity, and adoption leave for government employees; (2) Title 19, part I, chapter 7, by adding new sections 154, 155, and 156 providing for learning evaluation of children, postpartum care and minimum standards of health care for incarcerated women and men; (3) Title 19, part IV, chapter 37, subchapter II, section 831(a), by establishing a new procedure for obtaining an initial birth certificate; (4) Title 17, chapter 11, section 130 and Title 17, chapter 9, subchapter I, section 87, by prohibiting the use of corporal punishment; and (5) Title 17, chapter 9, subchapter I, by adding a new section 86a providing for paid time off from work so that parents may visit their children’s schools, and providing that certain health care facilities

However, senators voted and approved the following measures:

  • Bill No. 33-0100 – An Act amending Title 20, part II Chapter 39, section 46(b) (1) of the Virgin Islands Code by including persons who are handicapped within the class of persons exempt from being charged a fee for a handicapped window decal. Proposed by Senator Alicia V. Barnes
  • Bill No. 33-0068 – An Act to amend Title 20, part II, chapter 32, subchapter 1 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new section to create a process for transferring a vehicle upon the death of an individual, without going through the probate process. Proposed by Senator Janelle K. Sarauw
  • Bill No. 33-0119 – An Act amending Title 27, Chapter 9, Subchapter I, Section 303(a) of the Virgin Islands Code requiring that an initial business license be issued within three (3) days of application.

Senators present at the meeting are Alicia Barnes, Marvin Blyden, Novelle Francis, Janelle Sarauw, Alison DeGazon, Oakland Benta, Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, and Myron Jackson.

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