Members of the 31st Legislature each had different highlights and concerns after listening to Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp’s second State of the Territory Address Monday night, but there was consensus that the tone of this year’s speech was markedly more optimistic than last year’s.
One year ago Mapp began his 2015 State of the Territory address with the startling statement that the Government of the Virgin Islands was on the brink of financial collapse. Sen. Justin Harrigan Sr. remember that speech as “dire” and contrasted it with “the jovial manner in which Mapp addressed the territory Monday evening.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said Mapp’s first State of the Territory had “painted a dismal picture.”
“This was very upbeat compared to his last State of the Territory,” agreed Sen. Myron D. Jackson.
Mapp’s address was peppered with assertions that the territory is moving in the right direction, particularly when it comes to government’s financial health. He said the 2016 fiscal year is the first since 2007 in which the government will end without an operating deficit. The governor also used the speech to tout the benefits of the sale of the shuttered Hovensa oil refinery to Limetree Bay, a subsidiary of ArcLight Capital Partners.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he was “cautiously encouraged” about the financial turnaround proclaimed by Mapp, including the implementation of long overdue salary increases for some government employees.
Many issues addressed by Mapp were uncontroversial with senators. The governor’s update on improved federal grant management, his commitment to building sports tourism, and his forceful stance on introducing recycling to the territory’s waste management strategy, were all met with praise.
The governor got more mixed reviews from senators when it came to his approach to the troubled Government Employees’ Retirement System, his tourism strategy, and his management style with the Legislature.
“The governor’s speech was more or less housekeeping,” said Sen. Almando “Rocky” Liburd. “He spoke very much about things we should do to make our place better.”
In addition to Mapp’s words on recycling, Liburd said he thought the territory’s new collaboration with the New York Police Department to train officers is a step in the right direction.
Vialet said he was in strong agreement with the governor’s call for a ban on plastic check-out bags in the territory’s stores.
Sen. Marvin Blyden expressed excitement at the governor’s statement that funds had been identified to overhaul the territory’s water lines. He said he would have liked to hear Mapp speak more on his administration’s plan to improve conditions for the territory’s mentally ill and homeless.
Sen. Clifford Graham called it was a “breath of fresh air” to hear the governor speak about improvements in the Internal Revenue Bureau and the steps the Mapp administration has taken to catch up on delinquent tax returns owed to Virgin Islanders.
Mapp’s words on the reform of GERS were short on specifics, senators said, and the $15 million dollar bond he promised the system was far less than would make a significant difference to the system. Mapp called for the addition of two more members to the GERS board, each to have experience handling investments.
“The simple infusion of a $15 million instrument is insufficient to ensure the solvency of the GERS system, but I agree with Mapp that if we are going to put an infusion of cash into the GERS it needs to come with accountability,” said Sen. Novelle Francis Jr.
On the subject of tourism, Jackson said he would have liked to hear the governor discuss a strategy with an increased focus on culture, heritage, and the arts.
“I was very disappointed that I didn’t hear about the revitalization of the towns,” Jackson said.
He added that he was not encouraged by Mapp’s enlistment of a team of tourism professionals from Disney Cruise Line to make recommendations to improve the tourism product on St. Croix. Jackson said he did not want to see St. Croix’s tourism product be packaged as a “Disney product” at the expense of heritage tourism.
Jackson said he also would have liked to hear more from Mapp about aspects of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources beyond environmental protection.
“It’s such a big department and has so many important aspects related to our cultural patrimony,” he said. “The governor didn’t talk about libraries, historic preservation, museums, and his level of support for that. That’s something that I plan to take up this year.”
Perhaps the toughest critic of the governor’s speech Monday night was Sen. Tregenza Roach, who said he has at times been troubled by the governor’s interactions with the legislative branch of government.
“I continue to be concerned about the legislative process and the governor’s acceptance that we are equal partners,” said Roach. “There are things that he talked about that require legislative action in order to bring them to fruition.”
Roach said that since the Legislature’s approval of the ArcLight deal, the governor has called meetings with only the member who gave the bill a “yes” vote. Roach also said meetings between legislators and the governor leading up to the deal were not always inclusive of dissenting voices.
“You ask yourself the question, can the governor just call meetings with the members of this body that he chooses and then at the same time in an address say he wants all voices to be heard”
But Roach joined his colleagues in complimenting the positive tone the governor struck in his State of the Territory address.
“I think the speech was strong on optimism,” said Roach. “And I’m an optimist as well.”