On his way out the door, out-going Gov. Kenneth Mapp signed legislation that, on its face, aims to provide free tuition for much of the student body of the University of the Virgin Islands.
Earlier this year, Mapp proposed a measure ostensibly appropriating $3 million annually to pay for tuition for about 1,700 students. Senators did not act on Mapp’s proposal, instead approving one from Sen. Tregenza Roach. Roach is now lieutenant governor for newly-installed Gov. Albert Bryan.
It remains to be seen how many students will actually benefit. While on its face the legislation appropriates $3 million in Internal Revenue Matching Fund money-the federal alcohol excise tax funds the federal government donates to the territorial government every year, there is not actually any new money. Total revenue available to the V.I. government are not increasing and the territory still has an unfunded structural deficit in excess of $100 million annually.
The V.I. government already routinely ignores at least one other recurring appropriations from this same source. The Legislature passed legislation in 2011 “appropriating” $7 million per year of these same rum funds to shore up the rapidly collapsing Government Employee Retirement System. The government has paid only sporadically and as of September, right before the end of the fiscal year, was $14 million past-due. That is a smaller shortfall than most years.
But if any portion of the money is in fact spent this way, it will make it easier for some Virgin Islanders to get a college degree.
While federal law gives the governor power to call special sessions of the Legislature to consider legislation the governor proposes, senators cited their own internal policy of “pre-emption,” a rule the Legislature wrote for itself saying a senator who submits a bill before another senator “pre-empts” any later proposals on the same topic. Mapp questioned the legality of the senatorial tactic but did not fight it in court.
“While this measure is not as comprehensive as the bill I and UVI proposed, the bill before me does provide college tuition at the University of the Virgin Islands for our high school graduates,” Mapp said in a statement over the weekend.
“This new law and the opportunities it creates will be a positive “game changer” for many families. Providing tuition for young Virgin Islanders sets them on a path of achieving their dreams and aspirations. This program will produce a larger educated workforce in the Virgin Islands as well,” he said.
According to Mapp, it is the first scholarship program of any territory, following the lead of only two other states that provide tuition-free bachelor’s degrees. Also, UVI , would be the first Historically Black College and University in the nation to offer free tuition to residents of its state or territory.
“For all of the political outcry this program created during this year’s election, I’m pleased that we were able to get some measure of free tuition authorized by law. Many have sought to accomplish this task over many years past by including it in proposed Virgin Islands Constitutions and by authorizing bill requests in various Legislatures,” Mapp said.
The governor also approved a bill to establish the Division of Festivals within the Department of Tourism. The new division’s function will be to organize and execute festivals and to establish the Virgin Islands Cultural Heritage Institute within the Department of Tourism.
“It is clear the Legislature and taxpayers want answers on how the public funds donated each year to our carnival and festivals are being spent and managed. It is the Senate’s hope that this measure will bring some transparency and accountability to our festivals and carnival operations. I concur with the bill’s purpose and hope it accomplishes its objective,” Mapp wrote.
Mapp did not act on legislation approved Dec. 28 legalizing medical cannabis. The fate of that bill remains to be seen. Federal law gives the governor 10 days to approve or veto legislation, not counting Sundays. By that standard, as of Tuesday, Jan. 8, there is one more day for the new governor to act on the bill. But federal law also says if the Legislature adjourns, which it has, and as a result it is not possible to return the bill to the Legislature, “it shall be a law if signed by the governor within thirty days after it shall have been presented to him; otherwise it shall not be a law.” The Legislature will soon reconvene but has not yet announced the date. Bryan has said he supports legalization of medical cannabis, which would suggest he is likely to sign it.
“My support is based on the proven health benefits in the relief of pain and treatment of symptoms for many serious ailments including cancer. Conventional medical treatment for these ailments is often expensive and/or results in severe side effects. Medicinal cannabis may also be a preferable alternative to opioids for management of pain in some instances,” Bryan said.