Abramson: I haven't seen referendum yet
Published: September 15, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - As of Friday, V.I. Elections Supervisor John Abramson Jr. was preparing to order ballots for the November general election but said he still was in the dark about a referendum to ask voters whether they support legalizing industrial hemp.
Abramson said Friday he had not seen a copy of the bill, signed into law by the governor Tuesday, which requires the November ballots to contain the following yes-or-no question:
"Are you in favor of the Legislature enacting legislation that allows for the production, processing, manufacturing and distributing of industrial hemp in the Virgin Islands?"
Normally, Abramson said, Government House or the Legislature would send him a signed copy of any new law affecting the agency or instructing the agency about what to do.
"That's not happened yet," Abramson said. "When and if it does reach my desk, we will prepare a separate ballot."
He said once he sees the legislation, he will draft a ballot as instructed by the law. The draft ballot is then sent to the territory's two elections boards for their review and approval.
Once approved, the ballots go to the printer, and the printing takes about four or five days, Abramson said.
Abramson said that he already is sending ballots to his boards for races like the Congressional delegate race and V.I. Senate races, but timing is not yet an issue for the hemp referendum. Because each race - and eventually the hemp referendum - will appear on a separate ballot, a delay in finalizing the referendum will not hold up the printing of other ballots, he said.
Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said he was uncertain whose responsibility it is to notify a third party about enacted legislation, but traditionally it has not been the office of the governor.
Greaux said later that the governor's legal counsel notified Abramson on Tuesday, the same day the bill was signed into law, that the measure had been signed by the governor. The governor will send Abramson a letter formally advising him of the same information, along with a signed copy of the bill, early next week, Greaux said.
"The governor thought this was the best approach as it was the governor's action on the bill which was the final step in the legislation becoming law," Greaux said via email.
Senate President Ronald Russell said he was sending a letter Friday notifying Abramson of the new law.
"We're going to get it to them," he said.
Though the public discussion leading up to the Senate's vote on the industrial hemp referendum was dominated by assertions that the referendum would be non-binding, the legislation as passed by the Senate and signed into law contains pseudo-binding language.
The bill states the Senate shall not be required to take any action toward the licensing of industrial hemp production in the territory unless two conditions are met:
- A majority of voters vote on the question, and
- A majority of those voting vote yes.
The legislation does not say what, if anything, the Senate shall do if those conditions are met.
Sen. Terrence Nelson, the bill's sponsor, said this language should come as no surprise because it was in the original version of the bill.
Nelson's assertion is not reflected in Senate records. A July 10 copy of the bill submitted to the Senate's Committee of the Whole includes no "shall" language pertaining to the legislature. Only the Board of Elections is directed to include the question on the November 2012 general election ballot.
An amendment to the bill dated Aug. 20 inserted what it identifies as "a new section" that includes the phrase about the legislature not being required to act unless certain conditions are met.
But Nelson said the "shall" phrasing was not meant to make the referendum binding. Instead, he said it is meant to ensure the Senate would not act unless voter support for the referendum reached a high threshold.
"It's the opposite of binding," he said. "It's not mandating that we do something. It's more mandating that we cannot do anything."
Nelson said what the legislature does if those condition are met remains open-ended.
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.