Senate Advances Amendments to Counseling and Discrimination Laws

Sen. Steven Payne during Thursday’s legislative hearing. (Legislature photo)

On Thursday, the Committee on Rules and Judiciary advanced amendments to counseling licensure requirements and race discrimination laws for the territory but voted to hold legislation that publicizes record-keeping of the Board of Elections.

Bill 34-0190 modifies licensure exemptions and eligibility requirements, increases the length of time board members serve, requires criminal background checks for all new and existing applicants, adjusts education requirements, and increases fines for individuals who hold themselves to be licensed professional counselors without valid licenses.

Vincentia Paul-Constantin, chairman of the V.I. Board of Licensed Counselors and Examiners of the Virgin Islands Board of Licensed Professionals, testified in favor of the bill amending existing law. She told an anecdote about the creation of the bill in 2016 which she said was a “pivotal moment” for the U.S. Virgin Islands, as the board now regulates the field of counseling in the territory and provides an avenue for individuals to pursue a professional license.

“The most important aspect of this board is to address and provide services to the ever-expanding mental health crisis,” said Paul-Constantin.

Sen. Marvin Blyden, the bill’s sponsor, said the change would “facilitate the licensing of more professional counselors, thus increasing the pool of providers.”

Alongside amendments to counseling laws, senators voted Bill no. 34-0147 out of committee. It amends V.I. civil rights laws to redefine discrimination in employment housing, accommodations, and education on account of race, to include discrimination on the basis of hair texture and styling.

Sen. Carla Joseph voiced “major concerns to the validity of discrimination being evidence in the Virgin Islands because of natural hairstyles,” being that testimony was not heard from the departments of Education, Justice, or Labor, “critical entities in the Virgin Islands that deals with discrimination.”

Other senators on the committee, however, felt that further testimony is unnecessary as testimony from those parities that felt discriminated against was enough to pass the legislation. Some made anecdotes to personal experiences and experiences of friends who were denied jobs and entrance to other territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, due to their hair.

Legislation proposed by Sen. Alma Heyliger-Francis to require the Board of Elections to make available to the public certificates, election results, appeals, witness lists, voter statistical data, and reports, was held in committee for the third time.

“I’m still not comfortable with allowing information about individuals to be easily accessible publicly by any and everyone. And if you were involved with law enforcement maybe you would see personal information as something sacred,” said Sen. Steven Payne.

The bill states that the records of the Board of Elections, including certificates, general and duplicate returns, election results, appeals, witness lists, voter statistical data, and reports are open to public inspection and copying. It also requires that records at the Board of Elections be stored in an electronic format or cloud in addition to paper records.

“While there was some effort to make some adjustment to it, I’m concerned that the language still opens it up too broadly to everyone,” said Sen. Milton Potter, the committee chairman.

Committee members Potter, Payne, Joseph, Francis-Heyliger, Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Franklin Johnson and Genevieve Whitaker were present. Sen. Kenneth Gittens was absent. Sen. Marvin Blyden also attended.