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Uncertainty Clouds Rum Tax Legislation: Plaskett Eagerly Awaits Proper Tax Bill

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In a bid to stabilize the financial flow from rum sales, Stacey Plaskett, the US Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress, has been keenly monitoring an opportunity to integrate a permanent increase in excise taxes. This bipartisan initiative, aimed at amplifying the tax remittance for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, is on standby, pending a suitable legislative vehicle for its inclusion.

The expiration of the last “tax extender” in 2021 meant a drop in remittances, from a boosted rate of $13.25 per barrel to the basic $10.50 per barrel. This adjustment has not only reduced the USVI’s revenue but has also complicated financial planning, given that prior debt securitization calculations were built around the higher remittance figure. In effect, the shortfall could elongate the repayment schedule of the bond note, which was critical for stabilizing the Government Employees’ Retirement System, by a significant seven years.

Although Plaskett exuded confidence about rectifying this issue by 2022’s close, the current situation in August 2023 suggests a more complex pathway ahead. Expressing her concerns, Plaskett mentioned, “While we were hoping to attach our amendment to a tax legislation, there hasn’t been a fitting bill presented by the Ways and Means Committee.” While there’s anticipation around legislation set for discussion post the September session resumption, Plaskett remains cautious about its feasibility. Drawing attention to the legislative intricacies, she remarked, “Given the Republican-drafted bill, even if it clears the House, I’m skeptical about its Senate approval.”

The delegate has also acknowledged the challenges posed by some Republican House members, who critique the tax amendment as overly generous. In response, Plaskett emphasized the historical significance and necessity of the tax initiative, signaling the need to better inform the opposition.

Despite the current legislative standstill, an air of optimism remains. Plaskett reveals that there’s an active effort, both from the governor’s team and a dedicated group of lobbyists representing the USVI government, to navigate this legislation to fruition. “It’s a collective effort, and everyone’s contributing,” she commented.

Highlighting the bipartisan potential of the initiative, Plaskett points out the diverse support from different states. “Considering the representation from Florida and New York, with a balance of Republican and Democrat delegates, and the push from Puerto Rican communities therein, I’m hopeful,” she stated. Plaskett believes that once a relevant tax bill emerges, the amendment’s inclusion will witness support across Congress.

Expressing her confidence in the process, the delegate affirmed her belief that any adopted measure will be applied retroactively to the period post the last extender’s expiration. She reassuringly mentioned, “Such adjustments are not uncommon in Congress. The challenge, however, lies in the unpredictability of the timeline, which depends largely on our Republican counterparts.”

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$16.5 Million Boost for USVI Water Infrastructure Courtesy of EPA

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The U.S. Virgin Islands are poised for a significant enhancement of their water infrastructure, thanks to a generous allocation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of President Joe Biden’s ambitious Investing in America initiative. This move is a reflection of the administration’s commitment to bolstering the nation’s infrastructure and ensuring equitable access to clean water for all communities.

Under the auspices of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a sweeping $50 billion has been earmarked for nationwide water infrastructure improvements. The U.S. Virgin Islands stand to benefit from a substantial $16.5 million of this funding. The EPA has designed nearly half of these funds to be accessible as either grants or loans that don’t require repayment, targeting those communities historically left behind and most in need of modernizing their water systems.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan hailed this allocation as “the largest water infrastructure investment in our nation’s history,” underscoring the transformative potential of these funds. “Through this unprecedented investment, communities across the country, including those in the U.S. Virgin Islands, will be empowered to secure safer drinking water and revamp their clean water infrastructure, safeguarding public health for generations,” Regan remarked.

Lisa Garcia, the EPA’s regional administrator, underscored the significance of this investment for the U.S. Virgin Islands. She highlighted the timely nature of this funding in addressing the critical need for upgrades in water infrastructure, particularly in those areas most in need.

The investment earmarked for the USVI is part of a broader $5.8 billion initiative through the EPA’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRF), which are pivotal in the agency’s water investment strategy. These funds are set to support the territory’s efforts in managing low-interest loan programs that tackle paramount challenges. Specifically, $2.6 billion is allocated for the Clean Water SRF to enhance wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, with an additional $3.2 billion directed towards the Drinking Water SRF for improvements in drinking water systems.

Since the inception of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2022, over $102 million has been funneled into various water infrastructure projects within the U.S. Virgin Islands. This strategic investment not only aims to fortify public health and preserve vital water resources but also to spur job creation, marking a milestone in the territory’s ongoing efforts to build a sustainable and resilient future.

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New Fee Structure for Immigration Services to Commence in April 2024

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The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on January 30 the introduction of a revised fee structure for various immigration and naturalization requests, marking the first such update since 2016. This adjustment aims to enhance the agency’s capability to cover operational expenses more comprehensively and to streamline the processing of applications.

Following a detailed fee review as required by legislation, this update is based on the initial rule proposal shared in January 2023. The review identified that the existing fees fell short of fully financing the operational needs of USCIS, including the growth of humanitarian initiatives, federally mandated salary increases, staffing needs, and other essential investments.

USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou highlighted the significance of these changes, noting, “After over seven years, USCIS is revising our fee structure to more effectively support our agency’s operations, thus allowing us to make more expedient decisions for our clients.” She commended the USCIS staff for their dedication to enhancing customer service and reducing backlogs, despite historical financial limitations.

The agency received in excess of 5,400 public comments following the January 2023 proposal, leading to several pivotal adjustments in the final rule, such as:

  • A $727 million reduction in the annual cost recovery goal through efficiency improvements.
  • More extensive fee waivers for Special Immigrant Juveniles, victims of human trafficking, crimes, and domestic violence, members of the U.S. military and their Afghan allies, and families engaged in international adoptions.
  • Fee reductions for certain nonprofit organizations and small businesses.
  • Decreased charges for some Employment Authorization Document requests and adjustments of status under particular circumstances.
  • Increased access to a 50% discount on naturalization applications for households earning between 150% and 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
  • A universal $50 discount for applications submitted online.

Limitations on Fee Increases

The revised rule guarantees that fees will not exceed the amounts proposed, capping most increases for individual applicants to a maximum of 26%—in line with the Consumer Price Index rise since 2016.

The updated fees are part of USCIS’s ongoing efforts to utilize innovative solutions to enhance the client experience and mitigate backlogs. Despite the fee hikes, the agency recognizes the continued necessity for additional funding from Congress to address the surging case volumes, especially those stemming from recent border crossings.

The new fee structure will be effective from April 1, 2024. USCIS has also announced a grace period running from April 1 to June 3, 2024, during which it will accept both the old and new editions of certain forms with the appropriate fees. There will be no grace period for forms like I-129, I-129 CW, I-140, I-600A, and I-600, due to the updated fee calculations.

USCIS advises stakeholders to refer to the Frequently Asked Questions section on its website for additional information, stating that the applicable form version and fees will be determined by the postmark date, with the receipt date used for any regulatory or statutory filing deadlines.

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International Dark Web Drug Network Involving U.S. Virgin Islands Dismantled

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In a significant development, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Friday the guilty plea of an Indian national in a sprawling drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy. This complex network, which cleverly utilized the dark web to obscure its operations, had links extending to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The individual at the center of this conspiracy is 40-year-old Banmeet Singh, apprehended in London in 2019. U.S. federal officials disclosed that Singh masterminded eight distribution cells across the United States for over four and a half years. These cells were integral in receiving, repackaging, and redistributing drug shipments from abroad. The network’s reach spanned all 50 states of the U.S., including the U.S. Virgin Islands, and extended internationally to Jamaica, Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Singh was extradited to the United States in 2023 to stand trial.

DEA officials have identified fentanyl as one of the key illegal substances trafficked by Singh’s operation.

Singh confessed to establishing vendor profiles on several notorious dark web marketplaces, such as Silk Road, Alpha Bay, and Hansa. These platforms were used to sell controlled substances in exchange for cryptocurrency, with subsequent order fulfillment involving U.S. mail and other delivery services.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole Argentieri, representing the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, remarked on the misguided belief among traffickers that the dark web offers anonymity and protection from law enforcement. Singh’s admission of guilt dispels this myth and underscores the Justice Department’s resolve to pursue and prosecute those who flout U.S. laws, regardless of their methods of concealment.

Over the duration of his criminal activities, Mr. Singh reportedly accumulated in excess of $150 million, which he converted into cryptocurrency. As part of his plea agreement, he is obliged to surrender these funds.

Currently, Mr. Singh is awaiting sentencing, with an agreed upon term of eight years in prison. The date for the formal sentencing has yet to be scheduled.

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