Senate President Myron Jackson told The Consortium Wednesday that when Governor Kenneth Mapp submitted to the Senate his free college tuition bill on September 11, the same day Mr. Mapp introduced the measure during a press conference, Mr. Jackson said he immediately did his part as Senate president by sending the measure to legal counsel, a normal process, he said, in moving legislation through the Senate.
But once the measure arrived to legal counsel, it was determined that Senator Tregenza Roach has authorship of the free tuition initiative. It was then up to Mr. Roach to utilize one of a few options, Mr. Jackson said. He could have allowed the governor’s free tuition measure to go through (giving up authorship), he could reintroduce his measure to the respective committee for hearings, or he could have chosen to merge his measure with that of Governor Mapp’s. Mr. Roach’s measure has not moved forward because it lacks a funding source; the governor’s measure comes with a funding source.
But Mr. Roach, according to legal counsel, has done none of the above, and so over a month following the introduction, with funding, of a free tuition bill whose passage is time-sensitive according UVI officials, not the least of which being David Hall, the bill has yet to see the light of day, and has remained languishing with no action.
The idea of free college education for all Virgin Islanders did not begin with Mr. Roach; it was first proposed in the U.S.V.I.’s 5th Constitutional Convention, introduced in May 2009. Under Public Education System, the document, seen here, reads: “The government shall provide for free, high-quality education system that includes early childhood, elementary, middle, secondary, career and technical higher education.” The document goes on to say that, “The Virgin Islands Senate shall provide the funding necessary to obtain and maintain a free, high-quality, public education system,” and that the Senate “shall establish and maintain the Virgin Islands Fund for Education.”
“The intent of the free college tuition was to encourage VI students to pursue higher education, to prepare young people for careers needed in the Government of the Virgin Islands, and to support the University of the Virgin Islands,” Mary L. Moorhead, who served as secretary of the 5th Constitutional Convention and chair of its Committee for Education, told The Consortium.
The Consortium left a message for Mr. Roach via Facebook messenger (the senator is a frequent user of Facebook), but a response, at time of publishing, had not been provided.
Meanwhile, time is running out for the measure’s implementation, which would provide for free tuition at UVI beginning Fall 2019. Mr. Hall, in a letter addressed to all lawmakers, expressed the bill’s urgency and the consequences of not moving expeditiously.
“We are writing today to request your support for moving forward with the Senate’s deliberation of the free tuition bills that have been submitted to the Senate. It is imperative that this matter is addressed soon if it is to have any impact on those students and individuals who hope to attend college in the Fall of 2019,” Mr. Hall wrote in the letter. ““The University hereby requests that a hearing of the Senate as a whole be convened immediately so that this important initiative can be addressed. We realize that there are two different bills on this topic that have been presented to the Senate, and this should serve as compelling evidence of how important it is for Legislature to move this matter forward.”
Mr. Hall said UVI was prepared to give testimony and provide additional information once a hearing is convened. “This measure is one of the University’s highest priorities and is included in the new strategic plan which should be approved by the Board this month,” he said.
But the likelihood of the free tuition bill being heard before the Nov. 6 election is slim; Mr. Jackson told The Consortium that aside from the Senate voting on the reapportionment initiative next week, there would be no activity at the Legislature until after the November 6 general election. Traditionally, the Senate is inactive from late October until December during election years.
Complicating the matter, Democrats supporting their gubernatorial ticket are said to have no appetite to push forward a measure that would appear to give Mr. Mapp credit so close to a major election, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Speaking during a Virgin Islands Political Consortium interview in September, Democratic candidate Albert Bryan said he would “absolutely” encourage his running mate Tregenza Roach to block the governor’s measure.