Senate Stalls Taxi Credit Card Bill But a Heftier Bill Is on the Way

Taxis line up for business on St. John. (Photo from the V.I. Taxi Association website)
Taxis line up for business on St. John. (Photo from the V.I. Taxi Association website)

A controversial bill requiring taxi operators in the territory to offer credit cards as a form of payment was about to face its moment of truth at a Senate session Tuesday, but lawmakers voted to scratch the bill off the agenda and hinted another one is coming that might impact all businesses.

“It did not have the votes,” said Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), who moved to take the taxi credit card bill off the agenda and send it back to the Rules and Judiciary Committee.

“As majority leader, I knew it did not have the votes and I did not want it to die,” Blyden later told the Source.

Vialet objected during the session, saying Rules and Judiciary already approved the bill the week before, and moved to essentially hold the bill in the Committee of the Whole until a future date, something that the Senate’s legal counsel had to double-check the legality of. Blyden withdrew his motion and made way for Vialet’s, which carried.

According to Blyden, his issue with the bill had to do with parity.

“The taxi drivers said they feel they were being targeted,” he said. “It’s not right to focus on one set of individuals, you must focus on all. If you’re going to mandate anyone to use credit cards as an option, which makes sense, it should be across the board and not just with a certain few. And that was the issue [Vialet] had with the bill being passed.”

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) and Sen. Allison Degazon (D-STX), hinted that the delay was to give stakeholders, especially those on St. Croix, a chance to provide input, in spite of the measure having publicly gone through the entire vetting process over the course of months.

Bill No. 33-0044, sponsored by Sen. Kurt Vialet, had long faced opposition from the territory’s taxi operators, many of whom are against the mandatory requirement of electronic forms of payment. In a Rules and Judiciary hearing last week, Bruce Flamon, an independent taxi driver, said the measure was “being jammed down taxi drivers’ throats.” Taxi driver Nilsa Serrano said she was not against taxi drivers taking credit cards as payment but she preferred that choice be left to individual drivers.

Marvin Smith, a taxi operator on St. Thomas, said driving tourists through the island’s tortuous, pothole-ridden roads could result in charge disputes that could hold a $30 payment in limbo for 90 days.

While Blyden said the bill did not have enough votes, some lawmakers spoke strongly in support of it during Tuesday’s session.

“I’m a bit perplexed that in the 21st century, in a century where we have apps to do a million things, that we’re scared or we take pause in moving to set any type of electronic payments for taxi cabs,” Vialet said.

“While there has been a collective decision to hold the bill in committee, we have to be mindful that we continue to kick that can down the road when the tourism industry and the chamber of commerce and others have already indicated that we need to, again, make or improve our competitive edge in the tourism industry by approving the credit card,” Francis said.

“The problem is with change,” Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) said. “You cannot be held hostage by special interest groups. The NRA has the Republican Party held hostage. We are supposed to look out for the Virgin Islands…. We have to force change upon people because they refuse to change. At some point, we have to make tough decisions even if it costs us our term.”

“Let’s do what’s good for the long term. We’re elected to make decisions, not to massage them and make them palatable,” Sarauw added.

Vialet said another bill, one that would encompass all businesses, is in the works. Bill No. 33-0098 would be a companion bill to the taxi credit card bill and would require businesses to offer at least two payment options to their customers, one of which must be credit card.

The bill would also require a receipt for any transaction of at least $5, provide receipts for transaction under $5 if requested by the customer, and maintain records of daily transactions for at least seven years. The bill would also allow complaints to be filed with the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, which is tasked with enforcement, for suspected violations.

Blyden said both bills will likely be put to a vote simultaneously if Bill 33-0098 successfully gets through the various committees of jurisdiction. The new bill impacting all businesses would not eliminate the need for the taxi credit card bill because the two measures amend different parts of the Virgin Islands Code, according to Blyden.

When asked if he thought the two bills would have better chances in a future session, Blyden said he did not want to speculate, only reiterated that a mandate to require credit card use must target all businesses, not just one group.