The reactions Monday to Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s State of the Territory Address were mixed, with some senators agreeing with the speech and others voicing concerns.
But at the end of the day, the lawmakers still voiced a preference for alternatives, or at least some tweaking, to his proposed five-year plan to generate new revenues for the territory.
In his speech, Mapp called for the Senate to take quick action a set of proposed taxes that are meant to increase investor confidence and reduce the territory’s structural deficit. (For details, see, Mapp Pushes Senate to Enact Reforms to Save Territory.)
After the speech, senators said one of the reasons they didn’t approve the sin taxes when they were submitted to the 31st Legislature was that the governor had not yet met with members of the business community to get their take on the plan. Since then, meetings have been held – many senators agreed they were “productive” – but most Monday night said they hope to incorporate the business community’s ideas and recommendations into the plan before passing it.
“The sin tax is an ongoing venture, but we will not act in haste,” Sen. Sammuel Sanes said. “We are going to take the advice of the business community, they gave us a lot of input, and incorporate that into the plan. In reviewing the five-year plan, there are improvements that can and will be made. It’s not that we’re not going to act on it, but we have to take into consideration all of the advice we have been given.”
Pro-business Sen. at Large Brian A. Smith said afterward that imposing the wrong combination of taxes could affect everyone in the territory.
“Any taxes that go up will affect the business owners and if it affects them, it affects the man on the street,” Smith said. “We need some cash, yes, but if we go up on those products, those planes are not going to be coming in full, those hotels are not going to be occupied, and it’s going to affect every restaurant and bar owner, so it’s going to have a big impact. When Cuba fully opens up its market, they will have all of those products to push out one time, so we have to be really careful that we strike a balance.”
Smith suggested that the government look at restructuring salaries for those officials making more than $75,000.
“We have to show that nothing is off the table,” he said. “And in two to three weeks, things are going to get real, real serious.”
Many senators said they were also “confused” about the different pictures of the territory that the governor presented.
“On one hand, you say tourism industry is working, but why are we looking to damage that by taxing the same population?” asked Sen. Dwayne DeGraff. “You say on one hand things are good, but we still need all of these things in order to move forward.”
Some senators, such as Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, said they have already come forward with proposals that the governor has not considered.
“Much more could have been said relative to what has been proposed,” Hansen said. “I have provided at least a dozen alternatives and they needed to be acknowledged. If not, the question becomes, ‘Do you really want alternatives or is it simply, do as I say?’ People just can’t afford what he’s proposing and it will be a domino effect, and we have to look at other ways to bring in new revenues.”
Hansen suggested streamlining the territory’s Economic Development Authority’s tax benefit program so that the governor has a minimal role in approving who receives benefits and who doesn’t.
Sen. Janette Millin-Young added later that even members of the business community proposed alternatives to the plan. The business community was clear during meetings with the governor that they would offer their support if the government also works on reducing expenses, but they have also since met and put forth some new recommendations, she said.
“The business community also suggested other alternatives, yet he still is moving forward with this proposal and this show tonight is basically to put pressure on the Legislature to do what he wants,” Millin-Young said.
A few other senators described the governor’s speech as “robust,” but said they wanted more information on problem areas such as crime and the state of the territory’s Government Employees Retirement System.
“I wish that we were further along in addressing those particular areas of concern, but over the two previous speeches I believe that again, if we had addressed some of the capital projects that have been on the drawing board for some time, we could have been a lot further along,” said Sen. Novelle Francis Jr.