St. Thomas-St. John district constituents heard from Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett at Walker’s by the Sea at Lindbergh Bay, where they had the opportunity to ask questions on topics ranging from health insurance coverage to energy costs.
Thursday’s town hall meeting was Plaskett’s second since being sworn in in January. She also met Wednesday with residents of St. Croix
Plaskett reported to constituents that she was pleased to be serving on the Congressional Agriculture Committee since the Virgin Islands is defined by the federal government as "rural" and qualifies for benefits that the committee helps oversee. She said that her presence on the Nutrition Subcommittee will also help her advocate for funding for programs that are important to Virgin Islanders like the National School Lunch Program.
Plaskett said that she has already begun using her position to remind Congress that citizens in U.S. Territories still lack the right to vote in presidential elections. In a recent episode of HBO’s satirical news program "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," a C-SPAN clip of Plaskett advocating for equal voting rights for citizens in U.S. territories was featured prominently.
Plaskett said at Thursday’s town hall meeting that addressing some issues that she knows are important to her constituents will be challenging. In response to one question about expanding certain areas of the Affordable Care Act to cover Virgin Islanders without health insurance, Plaskett said she faces an uphill battle.
"The Affordable Health Care Act, that’s a difficult lift us for right now, when you see Congress constantly trying to repeal it for individuals who already have it, to then try to get us included in it at this point. So we are trying to find creative ways around that."
Plaskett also said that there were matters brought up at the town hall meeting that may lie outside her ability to address in Washington, D.C. In response to a question about the proposed development of Mandahl Bay, Plaskett said she has scheduled to meet with the "Friends of Mandahl" group who oppose the project to hear their concerns, but that most of the outcome of that issue will be determined within local government.
"I want to be as helpful as possible to my constituents but also respect the branches of government," said Plaskett, adding that she will try to see how she might act as a conduit for a solution between individuals and the local government.
One question that drew applause from the crowd came from a Charlotte Amalie High School student who wanted to know what Plaskett’s office could do to help renovate the territory’s public schools.
"There are staircases that are falling apart. In terms of technology, we’re very outdated," the student said.
Plaskett responded that as a mother of five, helping to make school environments as nurturing and inviting as possible was high on her list of priorities. She said she had recently joined other members of Congress in writing a letter in support of reversing funding cuts for extracurricular, afterschool and summer programs in public schools.
She added that the defeat of a recent education bill that would have cut funding for some underserved rural and urban communities provides a fresh opportunity for her to advocate for changes in a new bill. One change Plaskett said she would like to see is the inclusion of the territory in the federal "Race to the Top" program, which rewards innovation and reforms in schools but has so far excluded the Virgin Islands.
"I want to make it a point of visiting every school to really understand, not just from the teachers and administrators, but from students as well, what the issues are, what the conditions of the schools are, and how the congressional office can be of assistance," said Plaskett.
Plaskett ended the town hall meeting by addressing a question regarding the territory’s high cost of living and its effect on residents who rely on federal programs like food stamps. Plaskett said she would like to see the Virgin Islands’ poverty level be adjusted to reflect the territory’s high cost of living as it has been in other high-cost jurisdictions like Hawaii and Alaska.
She said this would help bring additional funding to programs that offer federal assistance.
Plaskett also introduced St. Thomians to her office’s territorial director, Elizabeth Centeno, and the St. Thomas field representative, Cletis Clendenin. She said that constituents can look forward to many more town hall meetings in the future.