Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said he appreciated the tone of Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s state of the territory address Monday night and pledged that the 30th Legislature will work with him to address the territory’s fiscal problems.
"The public is tired of the finger pointing and confused by the blame game," Malone said after deJongh’s address. "The only path forward is cooperation. We do not have to agree on every issue, but we do have to agree to work together in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands."
Malone’s comments were released by his office in a statement shortly after the governor’s speech.
But though the Senate president said he appreciated the governor’s tone, he had harder words for the content of the speech.
In his speech, the governor said the territory faces a ballooning deficit and prescribed some strong medicine to deal with the problem.
Malone said the governor continues to push for layoffs and salary cuts for government workers, and that the state of the territory speech, like the deJongh’s press conference a week earlier, was designed to put pressure on the Legislature.
"The livelihoods of government workers are not a bargaining chip," Malone said. "The middle class has been in decline here in the Virgin Islands for some time and, without question, public employees make up the bulk of this territory’s middle class sector. We can not afford to further erode it. The wealth gap is as significant a problem here as it is nationally. I agree 100 percent that we need to reduce costs, but layoffs or new taxes will hurt our economy and further tear the fragile social fabric of our community."
Instead of proposing specific recommendations for dealing with the problem, which could see the government run out of money before the end of the fiscal year, Malone said more study is needed.
"Turning this situation around will require a comprehensive analysis of areas where we can reduce the cost of government and make it more efficient," he said. "A consolidation of agencies where duplications exists would be a good start, as would basic austerity measures. We also need to consider the implementation of policies to make the USVI a more business-friendly environment. There have been improvements in some divisions, but we still have a long way to go."
Malone disputed some of the governor’s numbers, saying the figures regarding the reduction of unclassified or political positions were misleading. Many of those jobs have been converted to classified or permanent positions, Malone said. He also pointed out that a cut in the number of employees did not necessarily mean a cut to the government’s payroll.
"We certainly do have some positive developments in tourism and with the near completion of our new broadband network – I remain proud of the role I played in getting the broadband initiative off the ground and on track so that we could to help bridge the digital divide," Malone said. "I also strongly agree with the governor’s statement about our need to fight for Virgin Islanders to receive the same access to essential programs as all other Americans; however, we are in perhaps a worse position than ever in terms of making affordable health insurance available to individuals here in our community. This must be addressed."
Malone said his colleagues have supported many capital projects and revenue-generating initiatives that would jumpstart the local economy, including Internet gaming, captive insurance, major road projects and reconstruction of the Paul E. Joseph stadium in Frederiksted.
"The problem is that the administration has been very slow in sending out these RFPs and getting these projects off the ground," he said. "Senators have provided the vehicles for economic expansion and revenue generation."