Senate Turnover: Neville James Has Advice for Incoming Lawmakers

Sen. Neville James (is leaving the V.I. Legislature after five terms. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, provided bythe V.I. Legislature)
Sen. Neville James (is leaving the V.I. Legislature after five terms. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, provided bythe V.I. Legislature)

When the 15 members of the 33rd Legislature of the Virgin Islands are sworn in Monday, 60 percent of them will be new. Outgoing Sen. President Neville James has some advice for them as he prepares to leave office.

“Take an analytical approach to being a senator” and not behave as “a perpetual campaigner,” he urged.

“I was proud to represent St. Croix and made sure the government got its fare share,” he said about his tenure.

James served five terms in the Legislature, so he knows the ropes. He was the top vote getter in his first attempt in 2004, but was not successful in his senate bid in 2012. He returned in 2014 but did not win enough votes in the 2018 primary, coming in eighth when only the top seven candidates participated in the general election.

“I was disappointed to lose the primary, but everything has its time,” he said. “You should never fall in love with the government you have.”

James is not a complainer and said he’s happy to be a “free agent” with some flexibility in his life. He plans to take the Law School Admissions Test soon and attend law school. He also said he may work in economic development or with the V.I. racetracks at some point.

Although he doesn’t see himself running for office again, James is proud of his accomplishments and said he was fortunate to have served in the Legislature during a few years of prosperity.

In the early 2000’s, before the energy and bank crises in 2008, the territory earned millions of dollars in corporate taxes from the refinery. Between Hess Oil and the Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., around $100 million was collected a year, James said. This helped shore up the government coffers when new federal residency laws crippled the economic development program.

“The energy crisis destroyed everything,” he said. The resulting recession was a “change year” for the Virgin Islands and when the refinery closed in 2012, “we’ve been struggling ever since.”

James is credited with the sustainable agriculture act during his first term, followed by Racino legislation on St. Croix that now operates territory-wide, and prison reform in 2015.

James sees hope for better financial times in negotiating the re-opening of the refinery. He suggests the territory seek federal approval to treat oil like rum and receive “cover over” funds to augment the General Fund.

“Oil should be treated the same as rum because it’s made here,” James said.

The former senator had suggestions for the chronic problem of funding the government’s retirement system. He said new cash and a new formula is needed so that GERS is not paying out more than it is taking in – bankrupting the system in a few years. According to James, it will take between $1.2 and $1.5 billion to get back on track.

Since the 34th Legislature will take office during economic activity and a change year (the reopening of the refinery), James said it is important for lawmakers to pay attention to testimony and documents to ensure they make sense as they debate new legislation.

“We’re changing course, but we can’t change math,” James said.

The public sometimes reacts negatively to change, he said, and prefers the status quo. James stressed the importance of new legislators learning about the institution and the different sets of rules to avoid “chaos.” It is up to senators to make the changes and then explain them to voters.