Senators will take up two controversial measures during two separate Senate sessions on Friday, less than two weeks before a competitive general election battle. These measures are a reapportionment petition that has collected more than 8,000 signatures, and a bill offering free tuition to USVI students seeking to attend college at the University of the Virgin Islands. The latter measure had seen little action in the Senate after its announcement in September by Governor Kenneth Mapp, following a preempt by Senator Tregenza Roach, the original author of the free tuition initiative.
Action take on both measures will carry consequences. If lawmakers choose to vote against the reapportionment petition, they could face backlash from constituents who see their opposition as going against the will of the people. But if the senators approve the petition initiative, they may be putting their future political careers at risk, as the restructuring put in place by the petition would hurt some.
Senate President Myron Jackson said recently that senators took issue with a number of elements in the bill that they’ve deemed unconstitutional, and that the vote on Friday would likely reflect their position. Mr. Jackson himself will be voting against it, stating that he would abide by the law that demands the upholding of the U.S. Constitution.
On the matter of free college tuition, there will be dual bills vying to be heard: one from the original author, and the other, more recent measure from the governor. In this scenario, the dance must be delicate. Mr. Mapp is seeking reelection, and goodwill from the passage of his free tuition measure would boost his bid. The situation is selfsame for Mr. Roach, who is running as a lieutenant governor candidate with Albert Bryan. An approach of completely negating the governor’s measure, whose announcement in September ignited a wave of excitement in Virgin Islanders, could be seen by voters as a political plot by Democrats to wrest back the free tuition narrative from the Independent governor. But sidelining Mr. Roach’s bill, even if it comes without a funding source, would also play out badly.
Even so, both Mr. Mapp and Mr. Roach have expressed interest in merging the bills, and it remains to be seen whether a hybrid of both measures meshed into one will be pursued Friday.
The free college tuition measure was first introduced to the Senate by Mr. Roach in 2013. At the time, the bill, though applauded by testifiers and lawmakers, lacked a funding source and remained dormant for years. Then on September 11, Governor Mapp introduced a separate free college tuition bill — this time with a funding source — that was in part forged by UVI officials, chief among them UVI board member Oran Bowry. The measure was forwarded to the Senate the same day, Mr. Mapp said.
Once at the Senate, Mr. Jackson said he did his part by sending the bill to legal counsel, which then determined that Mr. Roach had authorship of the bill. Further, Mr. Jackson said, legal counsel relayed that Mr. Roach had preempted the governor, and that at the time a date had yet to be set that would see the initiative being heard on the Senate floor.
Following an urgent letter from UVI President David Hall, calling for swift action on the bill lest Fall 2019 students missed their chance to attend college free, The Consortium started reporting heavily on the matter. The reporting is believed to have elicited action from Mr. Roach, as the senator told The Consortium he would work to bring the bill to the Senate floor sometime this week. He also said a meeting had been planned with Mr. Hall concerning the bill on Monday, however details of said meeting, and whether it took place, were unknown to this publication at time of writing.
Lawmakers could override Mr. Roach’s authorship of the free college tuition bill and instead go with that of the governor’s. Or, senators could reject the governor’s measure and move forward with their colleague’s work.
“The Senate will have to decide,” Mr. Roach told The Consortium last week.
Mr. Mapp has worked to take the lead on the narrative of free college tuition, and has even released a video promoting the benefits of its implementation.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Mr. Mapp is heard saying in the video. “When Nelson Mandela spoke these wise words, he was speaking of the transformative and positive force learning has on society.”
Mr. Jackson had originally set the date for the reapportionment Senate session for today, but with the governor’s call for a special session on free tuition Friday, which he is authorized to do by law, Mr. Jackson said it made sense both logically and financially, to hold both sessions on the aforementioned day.
“It would be prudent [to] consolidate resources by rescheduling our original date and to conduct the business of the people at the end of the Special Session,” Mr. Jackson said in a release issued Tuesday. The sessions will be held at the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall. The free college tuition matter will be in session at 10:00 a.m., while the reapportionment session will commence at 2:00 p.m.
The Consortium will livestream the session on its Facebook platform and the VI Consortium website.
Correction: Oct. 25, 2018
Senate President Myron Jackson said two sessions will take place on Friday, not one session with both items. The story has been updated.