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. Janelle K. Sarauw is an incumbent representative for St. Thomas/St. John, running for reelection as an independent. She was born and raised on St. Thomas. Sarauw holds a bachelor’s in political science with a concentration in global governance; interdisciplinary studies of social science with a minor in history from Florida Atlantic University and a master’s in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. Prior to becoming a senator, she was an educator at the Charlotte Amalie High School, a coordinator for the Virgin Islands Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation, chief researcher and special assistant for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor and a part-time professor of political science at the University of the Virgin Islands. She has also sat on various boards, and as a former Division I athlete and volleyball coach, is the co-founder of Sky High Volleyball Club. She has also brought the culture of the Virgin Islands to many as a moko jumbie for over 20 years.
Here are the responses from Sarauw:
What will be your top priority as a legislator and why?
Sarauw: Given the unprecedented times that we are in, my top priority would be to adhere to the budget passed and continue to monitor the financial outlook of the territory. Our financial health is paramount to surviving this marathon pandemic we are in. I will continue to advocate for recovery projects to begin which in turn can generate revenue for the Territory. The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate, re-organize, re-calibrate, re-think how we operate. Without warning, our economy has shifted from a fickle tourism market to an industrial one – and so preparing a skilled labor force is also vital to a strong and stable economy.
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?
Sarauw: The way the government’s bonds are structured, bondholders always receive their payments first. With this structure, the government has never defaulted on a bond payment.
To avoid fiscal shortfalls, we must continue to remain prudent in our spending and implement greater austerity measures. From a legislative standpoint, we have continued to pass balanced budgets and avoid proposing unfunded mandates. The territory, however, can avoid a sharp loss in revenue if we move disaster-related projects along.
There are millions in disaster funds that we have not spent. Those funds are tied to projects – projects that will employ people and generate corporate and individual income tax along with gross receipt taxes. We are in a very unique position to maintain our stability unlike other jurisdictions.
How will you help make government more transparent?
Sarauw: I lead by example. In 2017 when first elected, I made a promise to the electorate to always remain transparent. About once a month, I engage with voters live on Facebook. I answer any questionsthey may have, and I read the concerns posted throughout the live thread. We call that Constituent Time. I also issue detailed quarterly reports and presently, I am the only Senator who publishes a financial report.
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?
Sarauw: I have never voted for an unfunded mandate nor has the 32nd and 33rd Legislatures made that a practice.
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?
Sarauw: As Chair of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, we have moved over 103 nominees for boards and commissions. The Governor has worked diligently to send nominees to my office, and we have acted on all except the recent ones that were sent. Within the Executive Branch, there is a staffer in Government House responsible for boards and commissions. Through that staffer(s) a comprehensive review of boards should be done, and recommendations made to the Senate to either consolidate or abolish boards that are unnecessary. In recent years, we have voted for the creation of two boards, counseling, and cannabis. Given the mental health crisis that we are facing, the counseling board is vital and if we are to move our economy on cannabis related matters then, a cannabis board is also necessary. So yes, I would vote to create a board or commission only if it is absolutely necessary.
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?
Sarauw: We have proposed BR 20-1281: to reprogram monies collected through the VI GAS TAX and remit them to the Government Employees’ Retirement System. BR 20-1276- To impose fees on money transmissions sent to destinations outside the US and its territories and remit those fees collected to GERS. BR 20-1348: an act authorizing the Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands to enter into negotiations with U.S. Treasury for purposes of acquiring a financial loan no less than $900m and an interest rate of no more than 5%. The loan would require that the federal government be the primary lien holder and up to 60% of the residuals will be remitted to the Government Employees Retirement System. The senates of the past made grave mistakes when they passed 9 unfunded mandates that aided in crippling the system, however, in recent years the Senate has worked to correct some of those ills like establishing a Tier II, changing the age of retirement and last fiscal year, appropriating $19 million for the system. The answer to GERS is not only large cash infusions, but a restructuring of the system, requiring more qualified board members and wiser investments.
Where do you stand on medicinal marijuana and what is the Senate’s role in getting it on the market and generating tax revenue?
Sarauw: While in the 32nd Legislature I voted in favor of Act 8167 (medicinal marijuana). As the Chair of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, I have moved all nominees for the Cannabis Board sent down by the Governor. There are more vacancies to fill and as soon as I receive those names, a hearing will be held. Additionally, in the FY 2021 budget, we appropriated funds for cannabis related software (seed to sale tracking system and other related items). The legislative branch has done their part. It has been 22 months since Act 8167 was signed into law and medicinal marijuana remains a fleeting dream.
What fuels violent crime in the territory and what should the government, non-profit organizations and residents do to help alleviate it?
Sarauw: Crime is attributed to a myriad of things; broken homes, breakdown in the village, education, opportunities, lack of effective intervention and prevention programs coupled with a lack of enforcement. As of September, we’ve had 37 homicides this year alone. Punitive legislation only goes so far. We must invest in preventative measures to reduce crime, incarceration, abuse, and other adverse effects and community ills we face; like, collaborating with stakeholders to enhance and expand territorial youth literacy programs and curriculums in our schools, and funding and supporting activities like the fine arts and sports. Hence, my authorship of Act 8063 or the Apprenticeship Act which championed the creation of apprenticeship standards by the Department of Labor to become a recognized State Apprentice Agency. After being heard in various committees five times and continuously amended, my Women, Children, and Families Act (33-0103) passed in the last session. It is a holistic approach to strengthening families, which in turn strengthens our 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 changeand to increase the territory’s preparation and mitigation efforts?
Sarauw: This earth is our home; and if the earth ceases to exist, so do we. That’s why a large portion of my energy has been directly aimed at introducing legislation that positively impacts our environment; such as Act 8185 which prohibited the importation, sale and thus use of toxic sunscreens in the Virgin Islands that harm our marine life and Act 8133 which banned the importation, sale and use of plastic straws. I drafted legislation to ban Styrofoam, measures to reduce single-use plastic and other ways to effectively manage our waste. The legislature is the policy-making body and does not bear the sole responsibility of educating the community. DPNR in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Waste Management Authority should be leading that effort.
Why do you want to be a Virgin Islands legislator and why should voters choose you over other candidates?
Sarauw: Running to become a Virgin Islands legislator is an opportunity to be the change I want to see for the territory. As a product of the V.I., I have seen and experienced so many of the struggles that are endured by our community because of a lack of true leadership, lack of resources, and lack of legislators being true public servants. It is because of these experiences that I made it a mission to be consistent, transparent, and willing to go above for the good of the V.I. If elected I know that I would continue to be the public servant that the V.I. deserves and needs to continue forward progress. Above all else, whether or not one chooses to vote for me, I am urging the populace to vote. Our ancestors died for the right to vote. We owe it to them.