ST. THOMAS — Lawmakers who makeup the 32nd Legislature on Friday met at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall for a special session called by Governor Kenneth Mapp, for potential action on a measure Mr. Mapp sent to the Legislature on September 11, that seeks to provide free college tuition for students attending the University of the Virgin Islands.
But senators, stating that the governor’s measure was preempted by Senator Tregenza Roach’s free tuition bill, which was first introduced in 2013, took no action on Mr. Mapp’s initiative, currently labeled BR 18-1229. Instead, the senators deliberated the measure for about two hours before Senate President Myron Jackson said it would be assigned to the Committees on Education and Finance for further discussion.
Testimony from UVI President David Hall, which included an urgent plea for immediate action, was not enough to sway lawmakers.
“The Workforce Development Scholarship Bill seeks to take effect for the Fall of 2019 and has a deadline of February 1 for applications. That may seem like a long way off and the Legislature may feel that there is no urgency to act now. However, many high school seniors are already making decisions about where they plan to apply for college,” Mr. Hall said in his testimony. “Those who left the territory because of the hurricanes are also making choices as we speak. We need this policy enacted so it can serve as an incentive for students to come back home and to stay in the territory for higher education. In addition, the University needs time to effectively market and promote the policy so that it can achieve its intended outcomes. We also must have time to put in place an administrative structure to ensure that the program is administered properly and consistent with the law passed by this legislative body. Therefore, I urge you to approve this bill or a similar policy today.”
Yet even as senators, in the middle of a heated election season, chose the route considered safe, they acknowledged the importance of free tuition for students seeking higher education in the territory, and gave suggestions that they said would make the final measure even better.
Some asides provided at the session by Mr. Hall caused alarm during the session. Among them was the high percentage of UVI students who go through remedial courses upon registration at the institution. Mr. Hall said the current percentage stood at over 60 percent, but historically the number has reached 70 percent. Senator Sammuel Sanes said some focus needed to be placed on diminishing the high percentage, and he encouraged the university to continue its engagement with the Department of Education on the matter.
Even so, senators generally stuck to the topic at hand. Senator Alicia Hansen, who also announced her support for free higher education, reminded those at the session that the measure being heard was not given the “bill” label by the Legislature, therefore today’s session served no definitive purpose. She, along with other senators, including Janette Millin Young and the original free tuition bill sponsor, Tregenza Roach, said the initiative was being used as a political item by Mr. Mapp in an effort to win goodwill for his re-election bid.
During a press conference on September 11, Mr. Mapp and Mr. Hall said the cost to the government annually for up 1,700 high school graduates would be $3 million. Asked why wasn’t this done earlier, the UVI president said it was a vision of his and others at UVI for quite some time, but it had to be ensured that the institution was receiving enough endowments and other forms of private funding to ease the financial burden on the government.
“We had to get to a point where what we would be asking the government to absorb was a more reasonable number, and that’s because we have had private individuals, especially the RT Park — every company that comes in now has to commit to one or more scholarships — and so overtime I saw us getting closer and closer to a point where I thought I could go to the governor and Legislature and say the gap is not $5 million no more, the gap is $3 million,” Mr. Hall said.
While there are similarities in Mr. Roach’s bill and the governor’s measure, they seek the same end: free college tuition for U.S. Virgin Islands students. Mr. Roach’s bill comes with a base GPA of 2.5, while the governor’s measure requires students to score a base GPA of 2.0. Mr. Roach said he was willing to compromise on this aspect. Likewise, the governor’s measure sets an income level for qualification, while Mr. Roach’s measure comes with no such requirement.
These differences are expected to be amended and a hybrid of the two bills measures are expected to emerge out of committee. Yet when exactly this will happen remains unknown.
For Mr. Hall, though, whether the Legislature chooses the governor’s measure or Mr. Roach’s bill — both of which include language that suggests urgent action is required — senators needed to act posthaste.
“Either approach that you take it means you need to move expeditiously to have this in place and to have students know about it because they are making decisions right now, and the university needs to adjust to it as well,” Mr. Hall said.