Disputing public claims that the Senate “hasn’t done anything” for the community since September’s storms, Senate Majority Leader Neville James called a Thursday news conference to discuss the Legislature’s accomplishments and top issues ahead of the governor’s State of the Territory address on Monday.
“We are officially, categorically rejecting the notion that the Legislature was not working and responding on behalf of the people of the territory, that has been a representation – and for those who continue to perpetuate that fraud, that’s on you. We have no desire to engage in a combative discourse when the people of the territory are looking for leadership,” James said.
While James didn’t say where the claims originated, several senators did take the time to lay out how involved they had been before, during and since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the territory last year. From meeting with the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency in the days before Irma, to setting up distribution senators in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, senators said they have been, for the past few months, focused on the recovery of the territory and remained supportive of the administration’s efforts for disaster relief, but still felt “disconnected” from the governor’s decision making process.
“The governor, by law, is the sole official – as the head of this government – responsible for the recovery process,” Senate President Myron Jackson said. “This is something we need a discussion on in reference to the length of time and processes in which the first and second branch of government are engaged in the processes and the long-term planning tools necessary for the success of the territory. I think the processes for these two hurricanes in terms of day-to-day operations, when are we brought to the table, should happen earlier than later.”
Jackson said a contingent of senators also traveled to Washington, D.C. to engage federal partners in recovery efforts and have continued to collaborate with Delegate Stacy Plaskett.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns, however.
Ahead of Monday’s State of the Territory address, caucus members said they would focus on six primary areas and would follow up with committee hearings to deal with issues relating to: education, health care, energy, infrastructure, finances and tourism. The most immediate hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 24, and, according to James, would put the V.I. Water and Power Authority in the hot seat.
“We will also be having different energy forums, where we are inviting stakeholders to come and help put together legislation that would help customers,” Sen. Sammuel Sanes added. “We also want to know what the government will be doing to push for more alternative energy options.”
Senators also voiced concerns about the state of health care in the territory, specifically, the continued transport of patients to the mainland for serious medical issues in the absence of two fully functioning local hospitals. Sen. Kurt Vialet said both hospitals should soon be able to draw down on millions in federal Community Disaster Loan funds made available for local disaster recovery, but the governor has to answer questions on how the funds will be managed and distributed, he said.
The closure of 11 local public schools was also a concern for Sen. Jean Forde. While saying that the Education Department has a plan to keep students safe, Forde said most schools continue with split sessions, and that the department is supplementing full-scale repairs with the purchase of temporary modular classrooms.
Senators also spoke about the state of the roads and the government’s “slow response” to September’s disasters.
During the press conference, majority members also officially welcomed Sen. Janelle Sarauw to the caucus. She will chair the Committee on Workforce Development, Consumer Affairs and Culture.