Senators: State of the Territory Refreshing, Collaborative

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., left, shakes hands with Senate President Kenneth Gittens before delivering his first State of the Territory Address. (Photo by Barry Leerdam)
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., left, shakes hands with Senate President Kenneth Gittens before delivering his first State of the Territory Address. (Photo by Barry Leerdam)

While some were hoping to hear more solutions for addressing homelessness, housing and mental health facilities, senators said Monday night that their overall take on the State of the Territory was positive, with Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. showing his understanding of the government’s finances and the driving forces behind some of the territory’s pressing issues.

In his speech Monday, Bryan said dealing with crime means tackling poverty, fixing the economy means rebuilding industries that will push the Virgin Islands ahead, and enacting education reform means partnering with multiple agencies to build a system that can take a child from preschool through their first years in the workforce.

“I found that refreshing, and I appreciate that he saw the correlation between things like poverty and crime,” Sen. Alicia Barnes said after the speech. “What I also liked is that the governor followed his statements up with not only short-term measures, but long-term plans that ultimately all lead us on a path forward.”

Short and long term plans include the development of more youth prevention programs, which Sen. Myron Jackson described as “refreshing.”

“We are suffering from a lack of instructors, as the governor mentioned, in areas such as vocational education, so I trust that he will take that seriously, but talking about ‘reform’ in the context of making sure young people are engaged is refreshing,” he said. “We’ve been on this page for a while in terms of investing in our youth, and I think we all look forward to learning more and being active partners in the process.”

Addressing the link between a stable education system and crime, Senate Vice President Donna Frett-Gregory, a former Education commissioner, added that Bryan’s push for an implementation of a K-4 program across the territory’s schools was a critical key in the overall process.

“You’ve heard for years about students not reading at grade level,” she said. “This program is important because it identifies the specific issues our children are having early and sets them on the path to success. Pairing it later on with Labor, adding in Career and Technical Education, and ensuring that our students are not only college ready and career ready with more options for apprenticeships was truly exciting for me to hear.”

The idea of “bridging the gaps” between causes and effects were important in other areas, such as economic development. In his speech, the governor announced the establishment of a Vision 2040 Taskforce under the Economic Development Authority to deploy a holistic economic vision for the Virgin Islands.

“I appreciated the governor’s honesty about the fiscal landscape and the clear steps for economic development moving forward,” Sen. Allison DeGazon said. “I also appreciated that he included agriculture in the business model, which shows that he’s thinking about sustainability as a way of creatively dealing with the problem.”

Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett said she also was encouraged by Bryan’s breakdown of the territory’s finances. In short, the governor said that in the wake of two Category 5 hurricanes, the V.I. government had access to billions in federal dollars to address recovery and rebuilding efforts and without it, the government would have not been able to operate over the past year.

“I’m grateful that he’s pointing this out, and that he’s coming up with concrete measures to address the issues and being very deliberate about it,” she said. Noting that reports that President Donald Trump might try to divert funds dedicated for hurricane relief to pay for his border wall have “been set aside for now,” Bryan said Monday “I am fully committed to ensuring that efforts to improve the U.S. border security do not in any way jeopardize our ongoing recovery and rebuilding process.”

Plaskett said the possibility is still something on her mind.

“I believe the funding is still in negotiation,” she said. “I believe the president has spoken about declaring a national emergency, and that hinges on discretionary funding, which is not very prevalent in the federal government. Those pools, if they’re not going to defense, is in disaster funds, but we’re going to push back on that. We believe it’s a declaration he’s overreached on, and I’m confident we’ll have support on both sides of Congress.”

On a related note, Plaskett said she also was encouraged by Bryan’s announcement of a digital monitoring system for the federal funding, which will track in real time what’s being spent and what’s not, along with any deadlines.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be so robust and so real time that we’re going to be able to ensure that those funds are spent properly,” she said.

Across the board, senators also said that Bryan set a collaborative, instead of confrontational, tone.

“He said that we all need to get together and make a difference here,” Frett-Gregory said. “He has charged all of us, including the government’s leaders, with the responsibility of addressing the issues, and it was exciting to hear that he thinks everyone has a role to play in that process.”

A few senators were anxious, however, to hear more about the governor’s cabinet picks. While former St. Thomas-St. John deputy superintendent Racquel Berry-Benjamin was announced Monday as the nominee for Education commissioner, senators said more nominees were needed to move forward with the plans announced in Monday’s speech.

“Speaking about poverty and its results was great, but getting a Human Services commissioner in place is an important part to getting the work started,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet. “I thought there would be an expedited process to make sure these people are in place. A lot of employees are in standby mode waiting for names to be announced and leadership to come in.”