Senators found Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s third State of the Territory address to be largely “upbeat” and “optimistic,” considering the past year was met with undeniable dilemmas associated with the pandemic and residual fallout from the 2017 hurricanes.
“Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s third speech is essentially a mid-term progress report, and I generally liked what I heard,” Sen. Kenneth Gittens said. “We are still in the midst of this pandemic, but we do seem to be making some progress in terms of recovery projects, hotel development and other major infrastructure improvements. While nothing is happening fast enough, the fact that we have kept our heads above water during this most challenging period is a testament to the strength of all the people of this territory. Unfortunately, some of the governor’s announcements were vague and lacked timelines. I will be working with my colleagues to provide the oversight and support necessary to see these projects through.”
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory said many of the initiatives Bryan identified as pressing to accomplish within the calendar year coincide with what the 34th Legislature also aims to accomplish.
“I and some of my colleagues have already submitted draft legislation around those matters that he discussed this evening,” Frett-Gregory said. “Of course, the support of this institution will be needed for many of the initiatives and to that end, I will be reaching out to the governor to arrange a meeting to discuss many of what he has mentioned and to discuss what the members of the 34th Legislature are looking forward to moving forward within the next year. We need to have that open conversation.”
Issues Bryan said the administration would like to tackle with the help of the Legislature include the repayment of $37.8 million to government workers who saw an 8 percent reduction in their salaries due to the Economic Stability Act passed of 2011; a merger between the Port Authority and West Indian Company Limited; a solution that would avert the Government Employees’ Retirement System from the edge of insolvency; action on the Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Act that was sent to the 33rd Legislature a year ago; a “Catalyst Fund” that would ultimately provide loans for startup businesses in the territory; enhancement of the marine industry by establishing more than 200 additional moorings throughout the territory; and a request for approval to use $675,000 from the Community Facilities Trust Account at Diageo to make track improvements.
Frett-Gregory said she supported many of the initiatives and was prepared to discuss with the governor how “we can come to a happy medium” and find a resolution to the growing Government Employees’ Retirement System problem. “Those issues need to be addressed. We have to get together as leaders of the territory and truly address the retirement issues that we have here.”
Both Frett-Gregory and Gittens supported the governor’s plan to pay the 8 percent salary cut back to all impacted government employees which resulted from the passage of the Economic Stability Act in 2011. But, Gittens added, “We need some more details in this regard.”
Gittens said he “fully supports” the merger of the West Indian Company Limited and the Port Authority, and that “two entities representing us within the cruise industry was never a good idea.”
“I continue to seek ways to make our government more efficient and fully support this endeavor,” Gittens said. A merger between the Lottery Office and the Casino Control Commission would also be advisable, he said.
As Senate president, Frett-Gregory was confident the Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Act will get traction in the Senate. She said the legislation, around 100 pages, is being acted on and will be ready for hearings.
“We are prepared to move it to the Health Committee so we can begin to flesh out the entire bill and see how we can move that piece of legislation along,” she said. “We do know that behavioral health and mental health is an issue here in the Virgin Islands. In light of COVID and the storms of 2017, that has really not helped, whatever we can do as the 34th Legislature in respect to behavioral health – I support.”
With a lot of work ahead of the newly assembled 34th Legislature, Frett-Gregory said, “I am looking forward to comradery and working with my colleagues and really, truly getting together regardless of what side of the aisle we stand on and moving meaningful legislation.”