Hate crimes legislation gets governor's signature

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ST. THOMAS - Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed a number of bills from the last Senate session into law Friday, including a bill to recognize hate crimes in the territory.

Hate crime bill

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Craig Barshinger and co-sponsored by Sen. Clarence Payne III, enhances the penalties for some existing crimes when the motivation is the victim's race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Called the Hate-Motivated Crimes Act of 2013, the bill lays out the following penalties:

- If the maximum penalty for the underlying crime is one year or less, the penalty for the same crime motivated by hate would be imprisonment for not more than two years or a fine of not more than $20,000.

- If the maximum penalty for the underlying crime is between one and five years, the hate crime penalty would be no more than five years or a $50,000 fine.

- If the maximum penalty for the underlying crime is more than five years, that penalty applies even if it is found to be a hate crime.

The proposed legislation does not limit hate speech, it maintains the protections of freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Other bills approved

DeJongh signed a number of other bills into law as well, including measures to:

- Add definitions of sexual conduct and sexual contact to the territory's criminal code.

- Authorize additional work performed by Betteroads Asphalt Corporation on a project for the V.I. National Guard. The original contract was for $239,875, and the change order was for $274,119.40. Half the total is paid by the federal government.

- Ratify a change to the government's medical insurance to ensure that 180 retirees older than 65 are covered.

- Lease 46,250 square feet of land in Bovoni to Lew Henley Sewage Disposal.

- Lease 100,000 square feet in Estate Nazareth to the V.I. Tennis Association.

- Petition Congress to support a measure to extend Supplemental Security Income Benefits for V.I. residents.

- Name the Pine Peace Basketball Courts after Orville "Chopper" Brown for his service to youth on St. John.

Baa Library bill

The governor vetoed a bill to use the Enid Baa Library exclusively for archives and records management, saying that the building does not meet the federal requirements of the American with Disabilities Act and would be an inadequate facility for the territory's "precious" archival material.

Unrelated amendments

The governor approved a bill to establish a new fund, Annual Leave Lump Sum Separation Fund, to guarantee payment to government employees who leave government service, however he line item vetoed several unrelated amendments tacked onto the bill at last month's session.

DeJongh approved the following amendments:

- Fixing a mistake on the plaque honoring the late senator Lorraine Berry. She served as president of the 26th Legislature, not the 25th Legislature as it states on the plaque.

- Splitting evenly an annual appropriation from V.I. Lottery funds between two horse rescue organizations. The money, 0.5 percent of the Lottery's net income contributed to the General Fund, had been earmarked for Island Horse Welfare. The amendment gives half of it to Golden Age Ranch.

- Removing inconsistencies in the exemptions listed in the recently passed captive insurance legislation.

- Correcting an oversight in the V.I. Code pertaining to the government's contribution to the Government Employees Retirement System. When the contribution rate was changed from 14.5 percent to 17.5 percent, the legislation only changed it for Tier II employees.

The government has been paying the higher rate for all employees, including Tier I employees, and the change was made to correct an oversight in the language of the original law, Sen. Clifford Graham said.

- Extending the amnesty period for homeowners to turn unused space under their homes into apartments. The law, passed in 2011, allowed homes with occupancy permits prior to Jan. 1, 2012, to enclose remaining usable space at the base of the structure for any residential purpose.

The program also allowed for a two-year amnesty program for residential property owners who have made additional improvements or alterations outside the permitted scope without the requisite permits. That amnesty ended Dec. 31, but the amendment passed Tuesday would extended it for two more years.

- Mandating that all government offices post a sign that details what services are provided by that office and a checklist of steps necessary to obtain those services.

Line item vetoes

DeJongh line item vetoed two measures included in the annual leave bill that would require an appropriation.

He axed an item reauthorizing expired funds - in the amount of $450,000 - to be used to build a fence and security lighting at Joseph Gomez Elementary School. The funds were encumbered and still should be available, but the authorization to use them had expired.

The governor also denied a measure to appropriate $54,514 from the General Fund to the Board of Elections to pay for outstanding obligations to attorney Scott McChain.

He said both measures may seem inconsequential, but would decrease the government's cash flow and place a greater strain on the government's finances.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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