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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, June 21, 2024
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The State of the Territory 2024 as Heard — or Not — by Lawmakers

Some lawmakers shared concerns about what the 2024 State of the Territory Address didn’t say. (Source file photo)

Some members of the 35th Legislature called Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s State of the Territory Address one of the longest they’d every heard — about 90 minutes. But they were ready on Monday night to mention the things they had not heard through the course of that lengthy speech.

Several went straight to topic number one, the financial state of the Virgin Islands. The governor described it as a robust economy, buffered by inflation and cost-of-living pressures. Senate President Novelle Francis was among those who saw things differently.

“He was pretty optimistic in his speech,” Francis said, adding that, in a way, expressing optimism is the governor’s job.

The Senate president then pointed to $89 million in outstanding vendor payments, something he said the administration had to get a handle on. “We have a responsibility to pay our bills … I don’t know if he indicated how we can backfill that gap,” Francis said.

Senate Minority Leader Dwayne DeGraff and St. Croix Sens. Franklin Johnson and Samuel Carrion chimed in with the senate president, saying they heard contrasting views from the governor’s financial team as of late last week.

“It’s concerning to see where we are,” Carrion said.

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory agreed with the governor’s assessment that revenues in the first quarter of fiscal year 2024 surpassed those for the same time span in the previous year. But Frett-Gregory said that was not enough to relieve the current financial slump.

“When we look back at the year, meaning fiscal year 2023, we know that we didn’t close the year as we had projected, and of course that has caused some challenges with our cash overall,” she said.

DeGraff and Johnson also said the governor failed to mention senior citizens in his State of the Territory Address.

Senate Majority Leader Marvin Blyden said he wanted to hear the governor say more about homeownership opportunities, although Bryan mentioned the progress made by the V.I. Slice program.

“I’m happy that we are doing something; I would have liked to have heard more about our capital projects. I would have liked to have heard about training our people to prepare for opportunities,” Blyden said.

Sen. Carla Joseph praised the governor’s remarks, especially those noting progress in revitalizing the Clinton-Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas. “I thought he was charismatically passionate. We have a lot more work to do — a lot more work to do with WAPA, and we have to get a better handle on our finances,” Joseph said.

Sen. Alma Francis-Heyliger said she was encouraged by Bryan’s promotion of plans to address abandoned and derelict properties in the town areas but was less enthusiastic about the recent land swap agreement to build a new school on St. John.

“I have never been a supporter of giving up land that we celebrate as part of our history,” Francis-Heyliger said.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens focused on Bryan’s remarks about infrastructure projects. “I was hoping to hear more firm timelines for rebuilding our healthcare infrastructure and schools. We are unbelievably behind on many of these initiatives,” Gittens said.

Sen. Milton Potter said he would watch with interest Bryan’s stated introduction of the Rebuild U.S.V.I. Initiative. In his speech, the governor proposed a plan to bundle different disaster recovery projects as a way to speed production and promote efficiency. “I was definitely encouraged that the governor seems willing to try something new,” Potter said,” I’m looking at it with an open mind, but I’d like to learn more about how that will look.”

And Frett-Gregory said she looked forward to the establishment of the Department of Education School Construction and Maintenance Division. She described it as a way to free school administrators to concentrate more on delivering a quality education for the territory’s children while putting school repairs, maintenance, and construction into the hands of a qualified engineer.

Several lawmakers also expressed concern for the student achievement deficit and learning loss many students experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett also weighed in on the governor’s address. “We have to give him credit for his optimism and his willingness to fight through, to find the things the territory is resolute — to be fully resolved to find a path forward,” Plaskett said.

She added that Bryan’s remarks about forward progress to be made with help from federal funding gave Plaskett a sense of satisfaction for the efforts made by herself and her congressional staff.

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