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Immigration, Preservation, and Parity Were Addressed by V.I. Delegate to Congress as Priorities During Town Hall

V.I. Delegate to Congress, Stacey Plaskett, addresses citizens’ concerns during her office’s virtual town hall on Tuesday. (Screenshot from virtual town hall meeting)

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett and her team held a virtual town hall on Tuesday to share legislative updates and activities with community members. Topics such as preservation, immigration, disaster and recovery, and transportation funding were discussed as priorities for the delegate to Congress to continue to work on.

Plaskett opened the town hall with accomplished goals from her office, including securing ARPA funding, increasing Medicaid funding, additional child care block grant funding, amendments to the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022, Caneel Bay redevelopment and management, and securing St. Croix as a national heritage area. Jeffrey Nowill, legislative director for the delegate to Congress, then shared the congresswoman’s priorities for this term. One priority is the implementation of the Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act, which would allow persons to be approved for stays up to 45 days in the Virgin Islands.

Nowill says the act caters to persons “particularly from CARICOM nations” who are “deemed low-risk” for approval by Homeland Security. The act, he added, will assist the growth of the tourism sector and allow the territory to host yacht shows for medical tourism. The act, first introduced in 2022, was reintroduced this year and was last referred to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, as referenced on the Congress’ website.

Nowill also discussed the College Access Act as another priority for the congresswoman. This act aims to establish a grant program that will cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition fees for students who are residents of U.S. territories, allowing them to pay in-state tuition for the state they will attend school. The SSI Parity, another priority that passed the House in 2021 but not the Senate, works to extend the Supplemental Security Income program in the territory. It is designed to help aged and disabled individuals with limited income and is another goal Plaskett is working to achieve.

“The congresswoman is working very hard to increase the rate of cover over,” Nowill said of the Rum Cover Over measure, another priority for the congresswoman. “Her intention is to repeal the statutory limit on the amount of excise taxes covered over to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, or at least have the 2021 higher rate of cover over $13.25 per gallon retroactively extended for as long as possible,” said Nowill.

Last mentioned for Plaskett’s list of priorities is the Post Office Bill, aimed to designate the post office at Market Square in Christiansted as the “Lieutenant General Samuel E. Ebbesen Post Office.”

In the territory, upcoming activities that will be hosted by the office of the delegate to Congress are an in-person/virtual National Park Service Townhall on Tues., Dec. 19 at
6 p.m. on St. John in the Legislative Annex building, an open house on St. Thomas on Wed., Dec. 20 at 5 p.m., and an open house on St. Croix on Thurs., Dec. 21 at 12 p.m., both at the congresswoman’s offices.

Questions posed by online community members to Plaskett during her virtual town hall included concerns with public transportation and the lead-contaminated water levels on St. Croix, the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy initiative, and emergency fund spending.

Plaskett’s Communications Director, Tionne Scotland, posed the question on behalf of the audience member, which read, “How can we get someone to listen to us about the Vitran buses on St Croix? We need new buses, higher pay for the drivers, funds to keep the buses running, more mechanics. Can we please get some help with the issues? The more buses the less cars on the road, especially for the elders.”

“Our office has actually gone and sent letters and emails to the governor and his team about how we think some of the funding that we have had, whether it is the American Recovery funding, the funding after COVID, as well as some of the others, not just for Vitran but for Meals on Wheels,” responded Plaskett. “There’s funding available that the Virgin Islands government has that we think would be appropriate for that.”

Plaskett also mentioned the implementation of a ferry system between St. Croix and St. Thomas at a “reasonable price” that could be jump-started from the available funding.

Relating to energy, the congresswoman said that funding has been received through the Inflation Reduction Act and that “we are still in conversation” with the federal and local governments about additional funds to apply for. Plaskett and Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. have also been in discussion about inviting the Secretary of Energy to come to the territory to talk with the government and private sector. The office expressed eagerness for alternative energy and Plaskett mentioned the possibility of loan guarantee programs for facilities like Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation.

Plaskett encouraged citizens to go to the Office of Management and Budget website for ARPA fund spending, the HUD website for CDBG fund spending, and the FEMA website for disaster relief fund spending.

Additionally, as it pertains to Community Development Block Grant funds, Plaskett mentioned that the Housing and Urban Development Department “lists the Virgin Islands as a slow spender” and that the territory is behind in spending over $124 million.

Another concern by one citizen pertained to the delayed EnVIsion Tomorrow program and how their senior citizen relative has been waiting since 2017 for home repairs. It is apparent that the program has not made great strides.

“I am deeply pained by this, and I understand how hurtful this is,” said Plaskett. “We all know someone who has been affected by this and particularly it appears that quite often, it’s a senior.”

LuAnne Hodge, staffer for the congresswoman, asks that concerns be addressed to her at 340-774-4408 or luanne.hodge@mail.house.gov, as she is in direct contact with the complaints department for the program.

For concerns and more information, the congresswoman’s office can be reached at 340-774-4408 or 340-778-5900 for more information.

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