For decades, successive governments dragged their feet in the House of Assembly, moving at a snail’s pace and getting bogged down in politicking and petty squabbles instead of efficiently passing the laws the territory desperately needed.
But for the past four years, the Virgin Islands Party-led government has turned over a new leaf of sorts: Though it has not eschewed the petty squabbles, it has taken to passing laws at a relatively breakneck speed.
In the Jan. 24 Speech from the Throne, which laid out the government’s legislative agenda for the coming year, Governor John Rankin provided a helpful recap: Since the 2019 election, the HOA passed 101 laws in less than four years during an exceedingly stressful time. Compare that average — about 25 per year — to the less than 15 passed in many previous years.
In a sense, this newfound speed is a big step in the right direction. Legislation passed through the HOA tends to be reasonable, and new laws and quick amendments alike are constantly needed.
On the other hand, the fast pace appears to have exacerbated two longstanding problems.
First, when laws are passed too quickly, lawmakers struggle to keep up. HOA members themselves have admitted as much during recent debates, complaining that they haven’t had time to properly understand the laws they were discussing.
Secondly, a law alone is never sufficient: It also must be properly funded and implemented. The implementation phase was a perennial hurdle even back when the HOA was moving much more slowly. Now, the issue appears to be far worse.
In many cases over the past four years, the government has rushed through laws that it clearly was not ready to bring into effect. As a result, implementation has lagged far behind following the passage of major legislation including the Consumer Protection Act 2020; the Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Act 2020; the VI Trade Commission Act 2020; the Consumer Protection Act 2020; the Water and Sewerage Authority Act 2021; the Food Security and Sustainability Act 2022; and others.
Besides the obvious drawbacks of such delays, passing laws without efficient implementation can open the government to costly litigation.
In general, such issues appear to be rooted in a lack of proper planning. The Speech from the Throne annually lays out an overly ambitious agenda that lists far more laws than the HOA can reasonably accomplish over the course of a single year — even at its recent pace. And year after year, many of those promises are not kept.
Instead of this seemingly arbitrary listing system, we would like to see the next government — which presumably will be elected within the coming months — present a much more carefully considered legislative plan that clearly states priorities and provides a schedule for getting them done over the longer term. This would allow the rest of the territory to plan ahead and to provide feedback that would help ensure smooth transitions after laws are passed.
Legislating, after all, should not be a knee-jerk exercise.