Delegate Stacey Plaskett has spent much of the past year in the District of Columbia – our nation’s capital – a year that has seen good news for the U.S. Virgin Islands come out of Congress, mostly in the form of money.
Next year she will spend more time on the ground in the territory, Plaskett told the Source in an interview just before Christmas.
Because Congress is elected every two years, there “is definitely a two-track cycle” for each term, Plaskett said.
“The first year, members spend a lot of time in Washington on bills and legislation and hopefully the second year a lot of that takes fruit and members come back home,” she said.
Some Good News Over the Past Year
“This year, we did a lot more than we hoped, especially in terms of removing statutory caps” that impact territories differently from states, she said.
For example, getting Congress to specify the USVI as a persistent poverty area and include it in legislation that applies to states with the same, and “allows us to tap into funding we wouldn’t have been able to,” Plaskett said.
On the mainland, she said, counties within states are determined to be persistent poverty areas if 20 percent of residents are below the poverty line and this has persisted for three years or more.
“In the past, it was determined the U.S. Virgin Islands was not a county” and so not eligible, she said.
“But our amendment made U.S. territories counties per se, which gives us preference for some grants and loans,” she said.
It also helps in getting more discretionary funding through some federal agencies for education, infrastructure and other areas. And the V.I. Water and Power Authority can receive funding under rural development grants, she said.
She is still trying to get other caps removed, inducing caps on federal highway funding, she said.
“We have been doing things behind the scenes that people may not have been aware of, in regard to making sure the USVI is included,” she said. One example she gave was working with local USVI agencies to make sure the territory demonstrated that it met the unemployment levels to get a waiver on limits to Food Stamps back in July. President Donald Trump made the waivers more difficult to get but the territory was able to demonstrate it met the newer, more restrictive rules.
According to the USDA, 21,511 Virgin Islanders received SNAP benefits in August totaling about $3.5 million per month. That amounts to about $162 per month for each of those households. The annual SNAP funding comes to around $42 million per year. This is down from 2016 when the USDA provided a total of $56.8 million in SNAP assistance to 27,760 V.I. residents.
Plaskett is also proud and happy the territory was able to separate itself from Puerto Rico when the Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to delay release of hurricane recovery funds over concerns about corruption in Puerto Rico and the capacity to handle the increase in volume in the USVI.
“We got Rep. Maxine Waters [D-CA], the chair of the Financial Services Committee, to work with us and were able to get HUD Secretary Ben Carson on the phone to ensure the Virgin Islands was not lumped in with Puerto Rico,” she said.
The single biggest bit of good news may be congressional action removing the territory’s Medicaid cap and extending state-like treatment for Medicaid, Plaskett said. This has been a goal for decades and is a lifesaving (literally) boon to the territory’s hospitals, caregivers and patients, keeping upwards of 15,000 residents insured.
“We have an additional $126 million per year coming to USVI,” Plaskett recalled.
“In the past, Congress had a cap on how much support from the federal government would have been. In states, the percentage is based on demographics and in the territories, it was just an arbitrary amount. So we were asking to be included in the normal method of determining how much to pay,” she said.
Historically, the federal government doled out $55 for every $45 the territory matched. With states, the matching amount slides up and down depending on incomes and poverty levels, with poor, southern states paying much less than that. There was also a cap on the total amount available, but the territory often couldn’t access all that was available. Funding increased under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but the territory still had difficulty with the local match to maximize funding even then. Then, after the 2017 hurricanes, Congress waived the USVI match altogether for two years and appropriated much more for the territory, but that was set to expire in 2019.
The latest budget bill approved by Congress fixes that. It doesn’t extend the complete waiver but puts the territory on the same footing as states, at least for the next couple of years.
“Right now, the highest federal match is Mississippi at 81 percent, and we have been able to get 83 percent for the federal match,” Plaskett said.
Aside from legislative work, she said she has tried to make a point of making sure Congress is aware of V.I. issues and that federal officials come to the territory to provide support. She pointed to recent town hall meetings with the postmaster general and residents to talk about postal issues and talking with veterans about health care issues and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Caribbean Basin Initiative Funds
In 2017, Plaskett raised concerns that the territory was not getting the amount of federal excise tax revenue due through the Caribbean Basin Initiative. Puerto Rico and the USVI both get back nearly all of the federal taxes on their own rum production, but under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, enacted by Congress in 1983, the U.S. Treasury splits much of the tax revenue from rum imported into the United States by other nations too. Each territory gets a share determined by a complicated formula tied to each territory’s market share, relative to each other. Treasury regulations provide that the USVI can earn between 12-49 percent, with Puerto Rico qualifying for 51-88 percent. Plaskett’s office highlighted that the amount did not increase after Diageo came to the territory and the USVI proportion of rum production increased. This may be costing the territory eight or nine million dollars per year.
Asked about prospects for getting the federal government to act on this concern, Plaskett said she hopes Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s administration will push for these changes.
Plaskett said some had counseled Gov. Kenneth Mapp it might not be a good idea to pursue and he never pushed. But she said she has spoken with Bryan and talked with V.I. rum producers, who endorse the idea. It was part of the rationale Gov. John deJongh Jr. had for bringing the Diageo distillery in. That controversial deal enticed the giant multinational liquor conglomerate to set up in the USVI with generous subsidies and paying for the plant’s construction with federal tax revenue.
“I’d love to see us taking a position on this, really pushing for [these funds], not just going forward but also seeking prior years’ funds,” she said.
WAPA’s difficulties have been in the news a lot lately. While the federal government has been generous in helping WAPA rebuild after the 2017 hurricanes, nearly all of that money can only be used to rebuild what was lost and cannot pay for better power generation. HUD has put aside some $67 million of a $2 billion pool of funds for Puerto Rico for the USVI to not just rebuild, but upgrade power generation. Plaskett and both the Mapp and Bryan administrations have argued the USVI should get a bigger slice of that pie.
Asked if there has been any movement, Plaskett said she has had conversations not just with HUD but also Congress.
“Treasury and HUD’s position is they have already announced it,” she said. “We don’t want a continual fight with Puerto Rico. So, our position is if Puerto Rico has not used it” by a certain date, “then it should be reallocated. And it doesn’t seem Puerto Rico is going to meet that marker,” Plaskett added.
WAPA is also struggling financially and wants an increase to its base rate to provide a funding stream to allow it to refinance loans with propane supplier Vitol. If it works, rates will go down more after the rate increase. But Plaskett has concerns about just addressing today’s crisis.
“I want of course to be supportive of what the governor and Legislature are doing. I don’t like to be in disagreement with him. But I know how important it is to not just fix for immediacy, but for the long-term as well,” she said.
“The crisis is bigger than Vitol and until we are willing to say that, our federal partners are not willing to say they support transformational change at WAPA. …We would love to find money to bail it out, but our federal partners as well as myself are saying they need to do more.”
St. Croix Heritage Area Bill Needs Co-sponsors
Legislation to designate St. Croix a National Heritage Area, a site designated by the United States to encourage historic preservation of the area and appreciation of the history and heritage of the site, has been pending in one form or another since 2002.
For people living and working in a National Heritage Area, federal assistance would maintain significant historical landmarks for tourism and education, promote cultural events and protect the natural beauty.
There were several versions of the proposal under former Delegate Donna Christensen, and Plaskett endorses the idea too, but there are hurdles to passage. Other members of Congress need a reason to support it.
“With the Heritage Area bill, we have tweaked it a little bit to make sure really it’s inclusive, and we are hoping for support,” Plaskett said.
“But with a bill like this, we are hoping to find a co-sponsor or a companion bill on the Senate side. I think that’s the thing that is really important to make sure this becomes law,” she said.
Plaskett is fully in line with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on how to approach the impeachment of President Trump that arose from several of Trump’s national security staffers raising alarms over illegal withholding of congressionally mandated funding to Ukraine in exchange for public announcements of an investigation into one of Trump’s rivals.
The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump but continues to withhold the articles from the Senate in an effort to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow witnesses and a full trial. Republicans, who prefer a fast trial and anticipate the Republican majority in the Senate will acquit Trump, disagree and argue that Democrats in the House have no right to dictate how the Senate operates.
“I think it is masterful,” Plaskett said. “Right now, the reading is she has no obligation to turn the articles over at any specific time.”
“We know the president wants this over and done with,” she said. Delaying puts pressure on Republicans to “try the case in a fair and impartial manner” by making them answer to their districts. And “the president does not want this hanging over him as he goes into a reelection cycle,” she said.
No Plan to Run for Governor
Plaskett wants to dispel rumors she is considering running for governor. For now, she plans to continue serving in Congress and feels she has plenty to do.
“When I leave, it will not be to run for governor,” she said.