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Tuesday, August 16, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesSenators, Delegate Respond to Governor's State Address

Senators, Delegate Respond to Governor's State Address

Applause rang throughout the legislative chambers on St. Thomas several times during the evening as the Gov. John deJongh Jr. delivered his fourth State of the Territory Address before a packed crowd of senators, government officials and various supporters.
From time to time, people even whistled and cheered, or shouted, "Amen," when the governor spoke, urging him to keep telling "it like it is."
And for the most part, the reactions from the gallery were just as positive, with senators and officials touting the speech as optimistic, informative and straight-forward. Many said they appreciated the sense of hope the governor was trying to instill while he recounted the territory’s financial woes and urged residents to "dig a little deeper" until those issues were resolved.
"I think it was very positive — a great progress report," said Delegate Donna Christensen. "You know, I go around and people say, ‘Well, he ain’t do nothing,’ but, as they say, you really … have to give jack his jacket. A lot has been accomplished in the last three years. Everything he said tonight is factual, it can be checked. There wasn’t any smoke and mirrors."
In his speech, deJongh said the efforts made by his administration over the past three years have been boosted by Christensen on the mainland, particularly in the area of health care reform, which — if a bill including the territories is passed by the U.S. Senate — will increase local Medicaid funding to $100 million per year and provide insurance coverage to nearly 30,000 residents.
The governor also focused on a number of what senators called "bread-and-butter issues," including crime, education and capital improvement.
Sen. Michael Thurland, the Legislature’s vice-president and chair of the Rules and Judiciary Committee, noted that the governor spoke about the link between guns, drugs and gang violence. While describing the speech as "well-delivered," Thurland said he wished deJongh would have also outlined his plans for the development of a drug-fighting agency within the government, especially since the controversial Drug Enforcement Bureau was recently disbanded.
He also noted, however, the emphasis deJongh placed on improving sports and recreational facilities throughout the territory, to include the long-awaited development of a sports complex on St. Croix that will include a baseball stadium, along with nationally recognized swimming and tennis courts.
"This is extremely important, because it will give the kids something to do," Thurland, a former teacher, said.
Thurland added that deJongh, who focused Monday on continuing to fund local projects with federal stimulus money, had recently submitted to the Legislature a list of all the jobs created through the stimulus effort, which will provide fodder for a Committee of the Whole hearing scheduled for Feb. 3 to examine the state of the economy and the territory’s revised revenue projections.
How many jobs have been created since the government kicked up its economic development efforts was also a sticking point for first-time Sen. Sammuel Sanes, who said he would have liked a more "thorough" report on how Virgin Islanders are weathering the downturn.
"But I was pleased with the speech overall," he said, adding that he was "impressed" by deJongh’s announcement that Hovensa will soon be entering into a consent decree that will require the refinery to cut its air emissions substantially over the next six to eight years.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said the administration’s list of accomplishments, which were discussed at length Monday, shows that the government has "excellent" commissioners and directors at the helm of each department or agency.
"Especially in the area of education reform,” Malone said. ”In a case like this, it takes a long time for the improvements to become evident, but it definitely seems to me that progress has been made."
The only thing needed now is the implementation of a cultural education program in the schools that, Malone said, could help to combat things like gangs and violence.
"If there is more emphasis being placed on our culture, and where we come from, then maybe students will begin to take more pride in themselves," he said, adding that the police department also has to step up the enforcement of local curfew laws to make sure minors are at home and not on the streets during the late-night hours.
Honing in on a particular section of the speech in which deJongh urged the community to set aside pettiness, partisanship and self-interest in order to promote progress, Malone said he hopes the governor "takes his own advice."
"There are many of us in here that have supported his initiatives, but when we don’t, it’s like we get the cold shoulder," he said. "Sometimes, it’s like you have to be afraid to disagree."
No stranger to disagreement, Senate Minority Leader Usie R. Richards — who often says he is "not afraid" to stand alone when voting on controversial issues — could even be seen nodding his head when the governor was talking, and clapping along with the audience during certain sections of the speech.
He said afterwards that many of the initiatives carried out by the government were born in the Legislature and are now moving forward after languishing for years.
Richards said it was important that the governor talked candidly about the government’s revenue situation, which has been hurt by the long-standing property tax battle in District Court that has yet to be resolved.
"The judicial branch and District Court has to come to a final agreement soon," he said. "Because really, it’s through taxes that the government operates."
Richards, who also heads the Senate’s Labor and Agriculture Committee, said it was important the governor mentioned that the local Labor Department has received assistance from the federal government in paying some of its unemployment and workman’s compensation claims, but said he would have liked more discussion on agriculture, and possibly discussion on an initiative that helps to support the efforts of both local farmers and fishermen.
A stickler on environmental issues, Sen. Craig W. Barshinger, said he would have liked to hear more on the government’s commitment to clean energy. A deal with Alpine Energy Group for proposed waste-to-energy facilities in the territory is not enough, he said, touting the benefits of using solar and other non-polluting fuels.
While the governor did touch on tapping into the territory’s broadband capabilities and creating an "innovation economy" based on technological advancements and opportunities, he could have gone into more detail, Barshinger said.
"We are falling short of our potential there," he said, referencing the work being done at the UVI’s Research and Technology Park.
Barshinger did herald, however, deJongh’s announcement about the hiring of a planner for St. John, which has long been plagued — much like downtown St. Thomas — with overcrowding and parking issues.
"We are looking for 150 parking spaces immediately, followed by the design of a multilevel parking facility in Cruz Bay for 300 vehicles," he said. "The governor has acknowledged the plight of St. Johnians traveling between the islands and is working with me to support an initiative to set the fare at $2 each way, in line with rates elsewhere."
A few senators said they would have liked the governor to give a definitive statement on the public controversy surrounding work done to secure his home in Estate Mafolie.
"He needs to get ‘Mafolie-gate’ behind him so the territory can move forward," said Senate Majority Leader Neville James. "I lot of things I heard tonight, I heard before. But you hope for the best for the territory, and we’ll see what happens."
James added that he would like to see more plans on the horizon to take agriculture to "another level," surpassing what the governor said in his speech would include efforts to make locally grown food available at restaurants, supermarkets and schools.
Some attempt at self-sufficiency is the answer, James said.
While Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said he would like deJongh to "rethink" his support of Alpine Energy Group’s waste-to-energy proposal, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said that instead of waiting on the courts, the government has to jump in and start sending out property tax bills at the old rates so the revenue can start coming in.
More should have been said on the state of health care in the territory, particularly when there are clinics on St. Croix that have been shut down for months, Nelson added. Meanwhile, the governor has talked about putting in place a tax review commission that could help small businesses with their gross receipts taxes, and now it’s time for that to be implemented, he added.
Like many others, Nelson did comment on the governor’s optimism, which Senate President Louis P. Hill said he "appreciated."
"I’m pleased that the governor ended in a hopeful and optimistic tone, because in difficult times, when people are worried about jobs, their families and crime, it is important for a political leader to reassure them that it is going to be okay," Hill said. "That helps us remain optimistic as a people."

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