Lawmakers expressed strong doubts in a Senate session Friday about a reapportionment initiative changing the structure of the Legislature, but ultimately voted in favor of the bill that will place that decision squarely in the hands of the electorate.
“I don’t support the initiative as it is structured. What I am supporting is putting it before the people” said Sen. Positive T.A. Nelson (ICM-STX), who also proposed a reapportionment legislation that differed substantially from the one on the table Friday.
“Everybody knows I have a reapportionment bill, but these are things that are going to take a lot of contemplation, heavy, heavy contemplation,” said Nelson.
Bill No. 32-0329 would place a yes-or-no question on the ballot in a special election slated for March 2019, asking voters if they are in favor of an initiative by the St. Croix Government Retirees, Inc. to restructure the Legislature. It would also allocate $145,000 – the projected cost for the administration of the special election – in fiscal year 2019 to the Election System.
Along with Nelson, voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), Dwayne DeGraff (D-STT), Jean Forde (D-STT), Novelle Francis (D-STX), Alicia “Chucky” Hansen (I-STX), Myron Jackson (D-STT), Janette Millin Young (I-STT), Tregenza Roach (I-STT), Sammuel Sanes (D-STX), Brian Smith (At-Large) and Kurt Vialet (D-STX). Sens. Neville James (D-STX), Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) and Nereida Rivera O’Reilly (D-STX) were absent.
Currently, the St. Croix district selects seven senators – the top seven vote-getters – and the St. Thomas/St. John district selects its own seven. All voters, regardless of district, also select one at-large senator, traditionally a St. John resident, although St. John residency is not required by law.
Under the new initiative, however, nine senators would represent five smaller districts – two lawmakers each representing East St. Thomas, West St. Thomas, East St. Croix, West St. Croix and St. John as its own district. To complete the 15-senator lineup, all voters would also select six at-large senators, three of whom would be St. Croix residents and the other three St. Thomas/St. John residents.
The proposal also allows each senator a base allotment of two percent of the Senate’s budget – or $400,000 annually – for office expenses and staff. Senate officers, such as the Legislature’s executive director, would also get allotments.
The St. Croix Retirees’ petition, which needed the support of at least one percent of voters in each district, was submitted on March 14. Its wording was approved by the V.I. Titling Board in April and it gained the needed number of signatures at the end of September. Of the 2,298 required signatures on St. Croix, it garnered 2,343; of the needed 2,530 signatures on St. Thomas and St. John, it gathered 2,553.
Election Supervisor Caroline Fawkes informed the Legislature on Oct. 1 that it had been certified. The Senate already held three Committee of the Whole hearings across the territory in October, the first in Oct. 10 on St. John, to gather public input. In an Oct. 16 letter to Jackson, Fawkes recommended placing the reapportionment on the ballot.
In order for the initiative to become law, a majority of registered voters in the territory must participate in the March special election, and majority of voters who participated must vote in favor of the initiative.
Lawmakers, however, raised serious concerns, including what they saw as a lack of public understanding of the implications of the reapportionment initiative.
“I agree with some of the statements contained in the League of Women Voters letter to the body that there is a need for additional public education in this initiative and what it would ultimately mean in terms of representation for each resident of the territory as we configure districts in the Virgin Islands,” Roach said.
Smith suggested the residents who signed the initiative may not have fully comprehended what they were signing.
“If we rush to put this on the ballot when people don’t know what it’s about, remember, ‘a hungry dog eats raw meat,’” said Smith, reflecting on an old adage. “We don’t even know what benefits this reapportionment gives us.”
These sentiments were similar to former senator Ronald Russell’s Oct. 16 testimony, in which he said believed the proposed reapportionment plan was too complicated for the initiative process.
“Reapportionment should involve an objective determination using the size of voting population in the territory, how the population is distributed in the various geographic locations, and what is the objective,” said Russell. “Without proper supporting empirical data, any division is arbitrary. Our territory is particularly difficult to apply reapportionment because we have three separate and distinct islands.”
Nelson, meanwhile, disagreed with St. John having its own district. Under his reapportionment bill, the senate would be reduced to 11 senators: three from the St. Croix district, three from the St. Thomas/St. John district, and five at-large.
“It’s easy to say we’re gonna put it in its own district, but the truth of the matter is, St. John heavily relies on St. Thomas’ infrastructure,” said Nelson. “I’m not going to vote for a structure that’s going to give this district more senators than the St. Croix district.”
Blyden said the bill does not effectively address accountability issues, does not consider census data, does not specify where district lines are drawn and leaves the process open to gerrymandering. Forde said the increased number of at-large senators would result in a costly process that would discourage people from running.
In spite of these concerns, Millin Young said she was pleased that the people would ultimately make the final decision. She holds out hope, she said, that in the intervening months until the March special election, the public would become more informed on the reapportionment initiative.
“At the end of the day, whether they knew what they were signing at the time that they signed it or not, by the time the special election comes through, I would hope that everyone will strike that excuse from their vocabulary of not knowing what they signed for,” said Millin Young.