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Senate Budget Committee Approves $1 Billion-Plus Budget for FY 2024

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Central government, numerous agencies, and disaster-driven projects set to benefit from funding.

In a decisive move for the fiscal year 2024, the Senate Budget Committee has greenlit a budget surpassing $1.017 billion. Of this substantial amount, the general fund will allocate $960 million, while other diverse sources, including the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund, will contribute an additional $57.2 million. Additionally, the budget integrates an expected revenue of $61.2 million from projects related to disaster recovery and a notable $69.1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, which remains under the stewardship of the executive branch.

Committee Chair, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, acknowledged some challenges with revenue streams while commenting on the fiscal year’s final budget session. Senator Novelle Francis, both the Senate’s President and a member of the budget committee, lauded the committee’s diligence, noting, “Our comprehensive approach over several months involved in-depth sessions, including discussions with over 60 agencies and the core finance team of the government. We’ve ensured accountability at all levels.”

The sanctioned budget is set to finance operations across diverse sectors, including the Office of the Inspector General, Virgin Islands Hospital and Health Facilities Cooperation, Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and the Waste Management Authority. Significant appropriations have been noted by Senator Ray Fonseca for key agencies like the American Cancer Society and Catholic Charities. The Education Initiative Fund will also allocate $500,000 for the meticulous editing and printing of Virgin Islands-specific history textbooks. These funds aim to finalize the Social Studies curriculum from kindergarten to Grade 8.

However, financial prudence remained a shared concern. Senator Diane Capeheart expressed reservations about the sustainability of such expansive spending, especially given the dependency on the American Rescue Plan Act funds. Echoing this sentiment, Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger underscored the imperative of prioritizing revenue generation in subsequent fiscal strategies.

On a separate note, Senator Javan James Sr. drew attention to the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission’s absence during budget presentations. The committee, nevertheless, sanctioned a budget for the Commission, with James hinting at possible future legislative evaluations for the agency.

With unanimous agreement, barring the absence of Senator Samuel Carrion, the funding package progressed. A subsequent review by the Committee on Rules and Judiciary awaits, where it will be deliberated and voted upon.

For more updates on USVI News & World Report, stay tuned.

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Government

Marijuana Regulations Approved in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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The U.S. Virgin Islands has taken a significant leap forward in its cannabis program with Governor Albert Bryan Jr.’s approval of comprehensive rules and regulations governing marijuana use and distribution. The announcement was made during a press briefing on Tuesday by Government House Communications Director Richard Motta.

The newly sanctioned regulations establish a structured framework for both medicinal and adult use of cannabis. This dual approach aims to facilitate recreational cannabis use under regulated conditions while ensuring its availability for therapeutic purposes. According to Mr. Motta, the regulatory environment “provides special protections and benefits to medicinal cannabis users.”

Previously available in draft form for public comment, the regulations detail the process for obtaining various licenses and certifications necessary for participating in the cannabis industry. These roles include designated caregivers, prescribing physicians, licensees, third-party vendors, and consultants. Mr. Motta emphasized the importance of contacting the Office of Cannabis Regulation for those interested in getting involved.

Governor Bryan has expressed pride in the legislative and executive efforts that led to these comprehensive regulations. Notably, the Virgin Islands is the first U.S. jurisdiction to allow for the sacramental use of cannabis, recognizing its cultural significance. “With a closed economy such as ours, the governor believes it is important to provide opportunities for residents to participate in the program, whether as business owners, partners, employees, or patients,” added Motta.

In addition to facilitating legal cannabis use, the regulations address past injustices related to cannabis convictions. The new rules include provisions for the automatic expungement of certain cannabis-related crimes, enabling individuals previously marginalized due to past convictions to participate in the legal cannabis market. This initiative is part of a broader effort to promote social equity within the industry.

The governor’s approval marks the culmination of a long process of drafting and vetting. The regulations have been reviewed for legal sufficiency and are now ready for implementation. “For those of you who have been eagerly anticipating the rules and regulations for the adult use and medicinal cannabis rollout in the territory, they have officially been completed,” announced Motta.

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Bryan Names Kevin Rodriguez as Interim Island Administrator for St. Thomas/Water Island District

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Governor Albert Bryan Jr. has appointed Kevin Rodriguez, his former deputy chief of staff, as the Interim Island Administrator for the St. Thomas/Water Island District. This change follows Administrator Avery Lewis’s decision to pursue a seat in the 36th Legislature of the Virgin Islands.

Under Virgin Islands law (Title 18, Chapter 1, Subsection 2 of the Virgin Islands Code), candidates for the Virgin Islands Legislature must take a leave of absence from their government positions from the date they file their nomination petition until the general election concludes. Lewis filed his nomination papers on May 22, prompting the need for this interim leadership adjustment.

“Avery Lewis has been a dedicated and committed servant to the St. Thomas/Water Island district. Although we will miss his contributions in his current role, we support his decision to run for the Legislature and wish him success in his future endeavors,” Governor Bryan said.

Rodriguez’s appointment as Interim Island Administrator is backed by his extensive experience in public administration and his deep understanding of the community’s needs and challenges. Gov’t House officials believe his leadership will ensure a smooth continuation of services during this transitional period.

“I am confident that Kevin Rodriguez will effectively assist the residents of St. Thomas and Water Island during this time of transition. His proven record of effective management and community engagement makes him well-suited to advance our progress,” Governor Bryan added.

The governor expressed his gratitude to both Lewis for his service and Rodriguez for stepping into this vital role at a significant time for the islands.

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Central Government Staff Honored at Employee of the Year Ceremony

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The Government of the Virgin Islands recently celebrated its most outstanding employees in a series of ceremonies on St. Croix and St. Thomas. More than 6,000 government employees were eligible, but only a select few were honored for their exceptional service and contributions to their divisions and the community.

At the ceremony in St. Croix, Division of Personnel Director Cindy Richardson highlighted the critical role these employees play in enhancing the operations of their agencies and improving the quality of life across the territory. She lauded the honorees for their exemplary service and professionalism.

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. dispelled the notion that government workers are lackadaisical, instead praising the honorees for their dedication and impact. “You are pretty special,” he affirmed, acknowledging their positive influence within the community and among their colleagues.

Senate President Novelle Francis identified the honorees as the “cream of the crop,” and spotlighted Alfred Donowa, the employee of the year from the facilities management division in St. Croix. Donowa was praised for setting a high standard for his team. In St. Thomas, Adele Thomas was recognized as the employee of the year for her role as a receptionist in the Legislature’s offices.

The Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roach also took part in the celebrations, commending employees like Carmen Francis from the Real Property Tax Division for her exceptional customer service, and Chris George from the Geographic Information Systems Division for his leadership.

The ceremonies not only recognized the honorees’ professional excellence but also their passion for their roles within the government. Lieutenant Governor Roach emphasized the importance of ongoing professional development to maintain job satisfaction and retain valuable staff.

The list of honorees included individuals from various departments such as Rachel Haverkorn of the Office of the Governor and Marianne Navarro from the Virgin Islands Lottery. From the Department of Agriculture, Maxine Richards was honored, and from the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, Diana Gumbs took the title. Belgrave Stedman was recognized from the Water and Power Authority, celebrated for his achievements despite public skepticism about the utility’s successes.

These ceremonies serve as a vital reminder of the dedicated individuals who contribute significantly to the functioning and improvement of government services in the Virgin Islands.

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