Climate change is the biggest issue the U.S. House of Representatives is tackling this session, Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett told a St. Croix audience Saturday. She is also focusing on trying to win residents of the U.S. territories the right to vote for president, she said.
At a town hall meeting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Great Hall on the University of the Virgin Island’s St. Croix campus, Plaskett outlined her work for the upcoming term in the U.S. House of Representatives with other officials who talked about available help for those still facing challenges after the 2017 hurricanes.
“I’m not trying to solve local issues, but federal issues. I’m not taking the place of your governor. I’m not taking the place of your senators,” Plaskett said.
Each term, the party in control of the U.S. House of Representatives crafts one bill they agree is an important issue facing Americans. Last year, Paul Ryan and the Republicans wrote and passed their tax-cut bill. This term, according to the delegate, the Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, will work on a bill to counteract climate change.
“It may not be the new green deal,” she added, but all members of Congress will have an opportunity to add input.
On her own, Plaskett has introduced and will champion bills to allow Virgin Islanders and residents of the other U.S. territories to vote for president. She also introduced a bill to allow Virgin Islanders and residents of the smaller territories who attend college on the mainland to pay in-state rather than out-of-state tuition to attend four-year colleges.
H.R. 406 would define the word “state” to include territories when enacting statutes, rules and regulations, unless U.S. possessions are expressly excluded. Plaskett said sometime the Virgin Islands was not included in legislation simply because lawmakers did not designate “states and territories.”
Also introduced by the congresswoman is an act that would permit residents of CARICOM nations to enter the territory for up to 30 days under a visa waiver program. The waiver would allow athletes participating in events, patients seeking treatment in local hospitals and contractors wishing to work temporarily in the territory entrance without the usual wait. During the last term, the Republican chairman refused to consider the issue, but the new House chairman said the issue will be discussed during the term.
In February Plaskett introduced a bill to amend the Stafford Act to create special funding for FEMA, after the declaration of a major disaster to provide money within 180 days for prioritized needs.
Other bills introduced and/or sponsored by Plaskett include commissioning a report on the V.I. pension system and issues involving distilled spirits excise taxes, V.I. taxes and economic development.
Bills yet to be introduced by the delegate include lifting the statutory cap on Medicaid funding for the territories and increasing Medicare reimbursement rates for acute care hospitals in small territories and to increase funding for prescription coverage.
Plaskett explained that she is a member of two committees that will allow her to affect directly the Virgin Islands. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has jurisdiction over transportation, highways, bridges and mass transit. The committee has oversight of the Coast Guard, aviation and the development and improvement of highways.
The Agriculture Committee establishes farm policy and Plaskett is chair of a subcommittee that oversees policies, statutes and markets involving horticulture – fruits, nuts, vegetables and ornamentals. She will also work on policies dealing with rural development, energy and rural electrification. Plaskett said the committee plans to visit the territory and talk to farmers and also explore “farming three miles out in the water.”
The focus of the two committees are “the reasons seven nations owned us. We need to develop them for our own economic development and power,” she said.
At her request, Plaskett joined a third committee – Oversight and Reform – which investigates fraud, waste, abuse and performs general oversight of the federal government. She said the committee is very partisan, with a lot of diverse discussion. She feels as a former prosecutor, she can hold her own in such arguments.
“The committee uses me to grill them properly,” Plaskett said.
The federal and local officials who participated in the forum offered advice on taking advantage of grants and loans available to residents for disaster recovery.
Kimme Bryce, area director for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said senior citizens, low and middle income homeowners can apply for various grants and low interest loans. Also, there are small business and energy efficient programs available to Virgin Islanders.
Daryl Griffin, director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, reported that there have been 1,200 roofs replaced in the territory and 1,900 more repaired. For home owners not included in the first programs there is another Community Development Block Grant program that will be available, he said.
In response to a question from the audience, Griffin said 500 repair crews are working in the territory and that 70 have been dismissed for inadequate performance. Those having problems with the hurricane relief programs can call 855-378-0799 or 340-772-4432.
Other speakers included representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of the Virgin Islands Small Business Development Center, who announced there are free services to build business plans and financial programs, especially for those who want to do business with the federal government.
Wayne Huddleston, with the SBA, said Hubzone and 8A certifications are available for businesses who qualify in the territory to receive discounts, technological support and assistance in obtaining contracts. Information is available by calling 787-523-7120.
Even with the billions of dollars of relief funding available to the territory, there are strings tied to every penny, the delegate acknowledged. The aid money will not solve the V.I.’s financial burdens, because the federal grants and loans do not pay past debts – only disaster related damages.
“There’s a false dichotomy of prosperity and wealth. We still need to deal with (local financial) issues. I’ve talked to senators and I’ve talked to the governor and they agree. How do we get additional revenues?” Plaskett asked.