Bill to benefit horse owners in territory moves forward in Senate on Friday
A bill dedicated to supporting horse owners in the territory cleared its first hurdle by being forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary on Friday at the Virgin Islands Cardiac Center.
“The movement of this bill to Rules and Judiciary is a win for those families who deal with thoroughbreds and the racing industry but did not receive technical support or applicable exemptions,” Sen. Allison DeGazon, sponsor of the bill said.
Bill No. 33-0036--presented at a Committee on Economic Development, Regulations and Agriculture--adds the word “horses” to the definition of livestock in the Virgin Islands Code.
According to Title 7 of Virgin Islands Code, the definition of livestock “means sheep, goats, pigs, cows, and any other animals produced for sale and consumption.” According to DeGazon, chairwoman of the committee, the lack of specification for horses denies horse owners from certain benefits.
“The reason we want to include horses as livestock is to give horse owners the same grant opportunities, technical support and privileges from the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as others who own livestock which are currently denied to them,” DeGazon said.
DeGazon said that according to the requirements for grants and funding, the type of livestock must be clearly stated to qualify them for certain exemptions and opportunities as livestock owners.
“For example, during 2017 Hurricane Season, there were several people who had large tracks of farmland with horses who were unable to apply for any of the recovery funds because the code did not consider horses livestock,” she said.
DeGazon said her goal for the bill and others moving forward is “to increase the scope of agriculture and what’s included in livestock.”
During the hearing, there were conflicts between testimony from the Department of Agriculture and the Horse Racing Commission.
Dr. Bethany Bradford, DOA veterinarian who was speaking on behalf of DOA commissioner Positive Nelson, said the VI code’s definition of livestock was specifically for consumption and was against the addition of horses.
“Although horses are considered livestock in the United States, the Department of Agriculture is banned by Congress from funding horsemeat inspections and it’s illegal to sell, serve, or distribute meat that hasn’t been inspected,” Bradford said, despite admitting that donkeys, which are similar to horses, are considered livestock and aid farmers.
Bradford was also worried that the addition of horses would limit space on farmland for other livestock.
“Existing farmland will be used for raising horses and will displace existing livestock production and negatively impact the food supply,” she said and noted that the Division of Veterinary services will be overwhelmed with the need to take care horses following the amendment.
When asked by Senators Athneil Thomas and Novelle Francis Jr. whether an amendment defining horses as not fit for consumption would work in her favor, Bradford disagreed.
“The way livestock in agriculture is defined revolves around food production in the VI Code as it stands now. Horses are not considered food in any sense of the form,” Bradford said.
Meanwhile Jay Watson, Chairman of the VI Horse Racing Commission saw nothing but benefits in the bill.
“This bill is also key for developing the thoroughbred breeding industry. With agriculture being the key component to the horse industry, this new designation for horses will be most welcome not only for the horse industry but also other types of events that involves horses such as equestrian, rodeos, and trail riding just to name a few,” Watson said.
Watson said the bill not only diversifies the livestock component of agriculture, but also creates a new agriculture economy in the territory.
“Defining horses as livestock places the territory on the same footing with most jurisdictions and will be beneficial to individuals who are and want to become actively involved in horse racing here in the territory,” Watson said.
Sen. Kurt Vialet suggested changing the language of the bill. He also suggested putting it under a different title in the VI Code.
“I’m suggesting removing it from that section because that section speaks to consumption, while the horse racing industry in agriculture in the U.S does not speak to consumption. So, you’d have to redefine a particular section that deals with horses alone,” Vialet said.
He also suggested adjusting the definition of the type of horses to “thoroughbreds” and registration of said horses to avoid abuse by landowners seeking tax exemptions.
“I know individuals who would say I have 15 acres of land, let me loose two horses and I don’t have to pay anything. So, for them to qualify as a breeder of horses, they must go through the process of registering with the racing commission, the national registry and prove they are running an operation where breeding is taking place,” Vialet said.
Bradford, Watson and all senators present agreed with Vialet’s suggestion, and lawmakers voted favorably to send the bill forward to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.
“I am pleased with the recommendations. We actually had those as our own recommendations. I’m happy because we’re having the conversation and it is one that we should have had. I’ve had many families reaching out to me, asking for the support,” DeGazon said. “I look forward to helping the Department (Agriculture) while the department helps the community. I look forward to helping the horse racing industry and the families that are reaching out for this assistance.”
Senators present at the hearing were: Senators Allison DeGazon, Kurt Vialet, Novelle Francis Jr., Dwayne DeGraff, and Athneil Thomas.
The next item on the agenda was Bill No. 33-0054 sponsored by Sen. Myron Jackson to establish the Virgin Islands Small and Local Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program to support local small businesses. The measure was also forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.