The Source asked every senatorial candidate ten questions, to fairly give every candidate an opportunity to tell our readers about themselves and where they stand on some of the most pressing issues of the day. You can see all the candidates’ responses and more election news here.
Sen. Marvin Blyden is an incumbent Democratic Party senator representing St. Thomas/St. John. He is running for a fourth term. Blyden grew up in the Nadir community, attended the Robert J. Thompson Leadership Academy in Connecticut and graduated from the Dickerson Business School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the private sector, he was the food and beverage manager at Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Hotel, owned a small business for over 15 years and worked as housing manager and district manager at the Virgin Islands Housing Authority for 20 years.
Here are the responses from Blyden:
What will be your top priority as a legislator and why?
Blyden: At this time, my top priorities are addressing issues related to the pandemic and the major financial crisis we are experiencing with the GERS.
The COVID19 pandemic has presented multiple issues including matters of health, safety, mitigating economic impacts, and securing technology and internet access for students. Not only was I the first V.I. legislator to request a hearing gathering the relevant departments and agencies set to respond to the pandemic, I have also submitted and supported multiple forms of legislation to help families impacted by COVID19. I am a cosponsor of Bill No. 33-0291, which prohibits utility disconnections for non-payment during a state of emergency.
I am the primary sponsor of Bill No. 33-0316, which will require that all businesses in the Virgin Islands with less than 500 employees provide 80 hours of paid extended family and medical leave, mirroring the requirements of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. A federal tax credit will apply to all employer leave payments made under this legislation. My legislation Bill No. 33-0310 will appropriate $250,000 to the Department of Health for the surveillance, treatment, containment, or prevention of Coronavirus Disease.
I have also submitted legislation to ensure that DPNR has the power and responsibility to deny and revoke anchoring permits during a state of health emergency, and to establish tenant eviction protections for those who can prove financial hardship caused by the pandemic. Outside of legislation, I recently hosted the Solutions for the Future essay contest to address disparities in access to technology amongst families in the territory. Ten students in the St. Thomas/St. John District won their own personal laptop and MiFi device after sending in well-written essays on how they plan to stay positive in the face of uncertainty.
I have worked hard to submit legislation that will create cash flow to the GERS, like my legislation to create a transfer fee, wherein a portion of the monies will go towards the GERS. I also submitted legislation that will require that monies collected from past due income and property taxes be dedicated to the GERS.
I am a prime sponsor of Bill No. 33-0059 which will appropriate $2,900,000 from the General Fund to the Schneider Regional Medical Center to cover the cost of enrolling its employees in the GERS, and a co-sponsor of Bill No. 33-0132 which will strengthen the Board of the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) by requiring greater expertise among Board members.
The V.I. government had ongoing deficits before the pandemic hit and now faces a sharp loss in revenue due to a significant decrease in tourism. How can the territory avoid a fiscal shortfall that could force cuts to services and government layoffs in order to pay creditors first?
Blyden: As the co-chair of the Committee on Finance, I have made a considerable effort to support legislation centered around revenue generation. One of these is Bill No. 33-0299, which holds great promise in helping to revitalize the economy of St. Croix and therefore, of the Virgin Islands.
Although it was unpopular in many quarters, I supported the recent bill to create a special purpose vehicle to assist in restructuring the territory’s debts, as I understand that the savings realized over the next few years will be absolutely essential to not only helping the Government Employees Retirement System, but also keeping the government afloat.
Additionally, my colleagues and I have pushed for critical positions within revenue generation agencies like the Public Finance Authority, and agencies charged with managing federal funds like the Office of Disaster Recovery and the Housing Finance Authority to be filled quickly. This will ensure that the operations of these departments will be streamlined, all available revenue to the territory will be collected, and we will take advantage of all federal dollars we have available. Too often we find ourselves in a situation wherein not all federal funds are used, then the unused funds are sent back to the federal government, instead of being used to assist with shortfalls.
At this point in time, we have Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery funds we can use for address housing, infrastructure, economic revitalization, and hazard mitigation needs, and we have eight years to expend them. We have also been given CARES Act funding which can be used to address multiple issues caused or exacerbated by the COVID19 pandemic. Thus far, funding has been used to ensure that unemployment recipients receive an additional $400 for several weeks during the State of Emergency, and I have personally pushed for the use of these funds to grant family leave pay to workers in the private sector. I will ensure that these funds are fully utilized by the GVI.
How will you help make government more transparent?
Blyden: I am in full support of transparency in our government departments and agencies. As they each appear before the Senate, I have encouraged them to ensure that their data can be found on the official government transparency website so that information can be made available to the public. I also use their appearances in hearings as an opportunity to thoroughly vet their operations and finances.
Just recently, I successfully sponsored an amendment to Bill No. 33-0424, regarding the renewal of the state of emergency, which prevented the government from engaging in additional purchases outside of the procurement process. This not only ensures transparency, but it will potentially save the people of the Virgin Islands millions of dollars over the next two months.
The V.I. Legislature has on many occasions enacted unfunded mandates, from mandatory swimming classes or the unfunded Durant Tower project in Frederiksted, that never occur due to the lack of funding. Will you vote for mandates that government officials have testified require funding that is not provided in the legislation?
Blyden: Unfunded mandates worsen the existing deficit issue faced by the GVI, and it is fiscally irresponsible to support them. I generally make it a practice to not support unfunded mandates and I will continue to do so if elected to the 34th Legislature.
The territory has around 120 boards and commissions at present, most of which are unable to make quorums and many, like the Civil Rights Commission, the Maritime Academy Board, the Commission on Caribbean Cooperation and the V.I. Wage Board, have not operated in many years. Would you ever vote to create another board or commission and if so, under what circumstances?
Blyden: My support of the creation of boards and commissions depends on the circumstances. If said board or commission is critical to the implementation of specific legislation or initiatives, I will support their creation and the expedient appointment of qualified members. Though I believe it is important for the appointment process to move quickly, I feel it is equally important that appointed members have the appropriate education and experiences to take on the tasks expected of the board. When able, I advocate on the behalf of the GVI for qualified persons to apply for board and commission membership, and on multiple occasions I have sent correspondence to the Governor and President of the Legislature to appoint members.
What would you propose to address the collapse of GERS in light of the $3 billion-plus shortfall and projected exhaustion of all funds between 2020 and 2024?
Currently, the ratio of active government employees to retirees is 1:1. That is an absolutely unsustainable ratio, and one of the ways to increase the ratio and begin to bring it back towards at least 4:1 is to ensure that the employees of all our semi-autonomous and autonomous agencies are part of the GERS. For that reason, I have sponsored legislation to assist the Schneider Regional Medical Center in enrolling its employees in the GERS. I am also in support of filling vacant positions in government, as it will not only have more people paying into the system, but it will improve government services and put our people to work.
Last summer, I was part of a group of government and community that leaders gathered in Washington, at the invitation of the Delegate to Congress to bring a number of issues to the attention of Congressional leaders. Once conditions permit, we will be returning after January to have serious discussions about securing federal assistance to bail out the retirement system.
I recently co-sponsored Bill No. 33-0413, which appropriated $250,000 to the Cannabis Board to acquire the software they need to get the medical cannabis program going. This will help to get revenues going in the coffers of the GERS. I also supported the creation of the Virgin Islands’ Matching Fund Securitization Corporation, as I felt that it gave the executive branch the leeway to do what they needed to, and because it was an earnest attempt to get investors to come to the table.
Where do you stand on medicinal marijuana and what is the Senate’s role in getting it on the market and generating tax revenue?
Blyden: I am in full support of medicinal marijuana and I voted in the affirmative for the Virgin Islands Medicinal Cannabis Care Act in the 32nd Legislature and the 33rd Legislature. I have heard much testimony from members of our community who endure diseases and medical conditions that can be managed with the use of medical marijuana, and these individuals have been waiting a long time for relief from their ailments.
As a legislator, I see it as my duty to ensure that the legislation is fully vetted. We cannot allow for our marijuana legislation to benefit the ambitions of those outside of the territory more than it benefits the territory itself, and we cannot allow legislation to move forward without offering proper justice to those currently serving prison sentences for minor marijuana-related offenses.
Not only have I offered amendments for the latest version of the legislation, but I also sent correspondence to the governor reminding him to appoint board members.
Additionally, I am a primary sponsor of Bill No. 33-0413, just passed by the Legislature, which appropriates $250,000 to the Cannabis Board to acquire the software it will need to implement medical cannabis in the territory.
What fuels violent crime in the territory and what should the government, nonprofit organizations and residents do to help alleviate it?
Blyden: There are multiple factors that impact the amount of crime in our community. Issues of poverty and education are some of the more obvious issues, but I have also identified issues related to identity and personal development. A considerable amount of violent crime pits neighborhood against neighborhood to the point where some individuals are not safe traveling through certain housing communities and residential areas.
Just as importantly, many of our young men and women are being drawn into the “street” lifestyle in an attempt to fill deeply felt needs related to empowerment and belonging, and all too often, the criminal element has been more successful in seeming to offer these things than are the institutions in our society.
Over the last thirty years, we have seen a steady erosion in the number of programs designed to assist and guide young people through the difficult times of adolescence and young adulthood. I am a firm advocate of implementing legislation, which this body has already enacted, to revive the Youth Commission and to provide a comprehensive and multi-disciplinary approach to saving and engaging our young people.
Crime in the territory must be tackled in a collaborative approach that involves the voices of more than just the police department and justice system. As a community, we must come together to shore up disparities in education, ensure there are ample work and apprenticeship opportunities for the youth, and provide positive examples to live by so our young people can form identities for themselves without pitting them against each other.
Steps must also be taken to prevent recidivism. As a legislator, I have been a primary sponsor of second chance legislation like Act No. 7742, which ensures that those convicted of nonviolent crimes are able to make a living for themselves after they have paid their debt to society. I have also supported legislation to provide greater incentives for inmates to pursue educational opportunities while in prison. I will specifically encourage small business to aid in reintegrating former criminals back into the community.
Climate change is a growing threat to Virgin Islanders with a myriad of effects ranging from an increase in tropical storms to more severe health issues as a result of warming temperatures. What types of policies will you support to educate the community on the risks of climate change and to increase the territory’s preparation and mitigation efforts?
Blyden: As a small island, we are in a particularly difficult position regarding climate change because we are literally too small for our efforts to have a significant impact in stopping or reducing the speed of global warming. At the same time, small islands like ours will most heavily experience the impacts of climate change. And we already seeing these impacts in many ways–from drought and crop losses to more frequent and powerful storms to shoreline erosion, and public health hazards. So, in truth the only option for us is to prepare to plan for and deal with the impacts of climate change as best we can. The Hazard Mitigation Plan, prepared under the direction of the University of the Virgin Islands and VITEMA in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria is our blueprint for how we plan and build and prepare in the coming months and years. My staff and I remain in close contact with the UVI Hazard Mitigation Team, and I will continue to support public education efforts in a number of areas relative to climate change adaptation for our people.
Why do you want to be a Virgin Islands legislator and why should voters choose you over other candidates?
Blyden: I am running for the seat because I care and I believe that my work in the Legislature is making a positive difference in people’s lives. My passion and my love for the people of the territory is something that’s first and foremost in my mind at all times, and I believe it shows in my work and in the results that I produce for the working men and women of the Virgin Islands, for our elders, and our young people.