ST. THOMAS Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Two hours through an upbeat State of the Territory Address characterizing the Virgin Islands as resurgent, members of the 34th Legislature on Monday night, January 25, 2021, praised the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic while noting their desire for more concentration on areas such as energy, education, crime, healthcare, the retirement system, affordable housing, disaster recovery, economic development, tourism, and aging.
Detailing his accomplishments, top priorities, and impending legislative proposals at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, Governor Albert Bryan, Jr. first encouraged lawmakers to invest the time, thought, and collaboration needed to pass impactful and meaningful legislation and pledged his commitment to work with them over the next two years.
Part of that includes his plan to send several proposed bills to the Legislature for consideration, to include:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ refunding the government-wide 8 percent pay cut of 2011 over the next two years
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ providing gap financing to entrepreneurs through a “Catalyst Fund” at the UVI Research and Technology Park
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ offering Virgin Islanders access to remote healthcare through the “Telehealth Act”
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ tightening gun laws by requiring 24-hour notice of intent to import firearms into the territory to facilitate VIPD search and declaration
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ expanding services for adults and children with behavioral challenges through “The Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Act”
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ integrating the Emergency Medical Services with the Virgin Islands Fire Service, and
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ merging the VI Port Authority with the West Indian Company, Ltd. for a unified approach to port management
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory reminded the public in her reaction to the speech that “implementation and success are heavily dependent on the work the Governor does with the Legislature of the Virgin Islands.”
The Senate President and several of her colleagues were pleasantly amazed that the territory’s chief executive finally acknowledged inefficient management at the Water and Power Authority, exacerbated by deteriorating infrastructure and flawed billing practices. Senators were pleased that their oversight work has influenced and shifted the Governor’s position and vowed to continue their public utility oversight. The 34th Legislature looks forward to the implementation of new generators, lower bills, and alternative energy sources, along with relief for ratepayers.
Legislators also expressed their desire to hear Governor Bryan, Jr. spend more time discussing education, citing the need for early childhood instruction, curriculum development, vocational, career and technical programs, student literacy, and tutoring to close gaps in student learning brought on by the 2017 hurricanes and the current pandemic. Legislative Secretary Genevieve Whitaker, Chair of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, highlighted the need to rebuild existing school structures and pointed out the link between education and skilled labor in reducing crime.
The administration’s plans to augment community policing stood out for At-Large Senator Steven D. Payne, Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, for whom the upward trajectory in armed home invasions, robberies, and shootings on the ordinarily tranquil St. John was most urgent.
Improving the territory’s mental health services ranked high for Senate Vice President Novelle Francis, Jr., who aimed to vet the administration’s proposed Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Act in the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services, and looked forward to the completion of the Juan F. Luis Hospital North modular facility on St. Croix.
For Rules and Judiciary Chairman Milton E. Potter, the address did little to tackle “the big elephant in the room” Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the unfunded government employees retirement system. He suggested his colleagues host a “solutions summit” as early as February to bring stakeholders together to develop a plan to quell senior citizens’ anxiety by extending the pension system’s life by at least five years while working on a long-term remedy.
The protracted affordable housing crisis lent itself to more discussion needed on the Envision Tomorrow program to assist homeowners, said Majority Leader Marvin A. Blyden, Chair of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications. He also stated that persons who have lost jobs and find themselves struggling to pay utility bills and support their virtual learners at home without electricity. Faltering telecommunications services are among the issues he plans to address in an upcoming hearing.
Tourism jumped out at Senator Alma Francis Heyliger, who looked forward to seeing an increase in marketing the Virgin Islands as a destination, similar to the way other nations in the region are pushing so that when Covid-19 restrictions allow for travel to reopen, we are poised to accept an influx of visitors.
Mention of initiatives for seniors such as adult day care programs and physical rehabilitation programs were lacking from the speech for Senator Carla Joseph, Chair of the Committee on Government Operation and Consumer Affairs, as the territory’s aging population expands.
Diversifying the economy and aggressively promoting the benefits of coming to the Virgin Islands to pandemic-related businesses, such as personal protective equipment manufacturers, was top in the mind of Finance Chair Kurt A. Vialet and preparing locally now to implement executive orders passed by the new President Joseph Biden administration.
Response to trash buildup across the islands, restarting of the Charlotte Kimmelman Cancer Institute, and law enforcement’s plan to rebuild trust with the community were among the areas Senator Dwayne DeGraff wanted to hear more about.
Senator Franklin D. Johnson said the speech was “a little flip flop for me,” adding that he did not fully agree the Virgin Islands was resurgent. “A lot of projects have been left dormant,” he said, pointing to the Paul E. Joseph Stadium, along with an abundance of blue roofs still unrepaired and funding not drawn down for hurricane recovery.
The status of federal hurricane recovery funding as it relates to healthcare infrastructure and the status of HUD funding and subcontractors will be the subject of discussion at the first meeting of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Senator Janelle Sarauw, who found the Governor’s address to be void of several timelines, notwithstanding his commendable handling of the pandemic. She said his report on other initiatives such as the environment and the brain drain “lacked substance and meat.”
Senator Samuel CarriÃƒÂ³n, Chair of the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks, and Recreation, said he was pleased that several of the territory’s parks are scheduled for renovation completion through disaster funding. He said the Governor’s address “left a feeling of hopefulness.”