Home News Local news Officials Praise DeJongh Speech, But Question Details

Officials Praise DeJongh Speech, But Question Details

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Jan. 22, 2007 — Optimism greeted the State of the Territory Address delivered Monday evening by Gov. John deJongh Jr., with praise coming from government officials, community members and senators.
"It was a healthy dose of plain talk," said Simon Caines, the Legislature's former executive director. "We all needed that. He showed that he was clearly concerned about the people."
Throughout the speech, delivered at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas, the audience frequently burst into loud rounds of applause. After the speech, senators said the new governor had a "fine understanding" of the territory's main problems, and was well on his way to forming some comprehensive solutions.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, for example, spoke in favor of deJongh's "aggressive federal policy." During the speech, deJongh said the territory must, "turn back the rising tide of inappropriate federal interest in our affairs" by retaining control over government entities and initiatives, including the Economic Development Commission's tax-benefits program.
Malone has constantly advocated for the adoption of a local constitution, and said deJongh's approach was a "prerequisite to discussions on the status of the territory."
However, some said they questioned statistics included in the speech, particularly a section describing the territory's financial position. DeJongh described it as "precarious," with government expenditures generally exceeding General Fund revenues.
"Our budget is structurally in deficit … and year after year, the deficit exceeds $50 million," deJongh explained. "And our debt per capita is now more than twice that of any state, and 30 percent more than Puerto Rico."
Members of the 26th Legislature consistently received positive reports from former Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull indicating the government would end the 2006 fiscal year with a surplus, said Sen. Neville James.
"When we were doing the the Fiscal Year 2007 budget, Commissioner Turnbull indicated that we had $190 million in the bank, indicating that we were in a good position at that time," James said. "So I question how we have a $50 million annual deficit."
In the 2006 fiscal year, James added, former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull was also able to send down at least two supplemental budget requests, a testament to the government's continuous revenue stream. "There's no way anyone can say we're turning a deficit," he said. "The $60 million supplemental budget doesn't lie."
However, James also said he was impressed by deJongh's optimism, and hoped the governor's "actions are consistent with what he says."
Other senators, such as Sen. Liston Davis, added that they were anxious for "more specifics."
"We have heard all these problems before, but Gov. deJongh articulated them all quite carefully, with clear understanding," Davis said. "But now we need a plan. For example, he talked about restructuring the Department of Education, but didn't outline what the role of the education commissioner would be."
DeJongh also failed to say how he would address the more than $1 billion unfunded liability currently plaguing the Government Employees' Retirement System, David said. While senators recently passed a bill authorizing the issuance of up to $600 million in pension-obligation bonds that would be used to pay down a portion of the debt, in his speech deJongh said he would not support such a plan.
"I want to know what he's going to do now — how he's going to come up with the cash," Davis said.
Senators also brought other issues to light, such as a recent ruling made by V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall on a lawsuit that challenges the Senate's decision to establish a local Superior Court on the island of St. Croix. In a written draft of his speech, deJongh said he intends to drop the suit, which Turnbull filed last June.
But when he delivered the speech on Monday, deJongh did not make mention of the suit. Later, Sen. Ronald E. Russell explained that Kendall had recently decided to rule against the Legislature by saying that the court must be established on St. Thomas.
When contacted Monday, Jean P. Greaux Jr., deJongh's spokesman, confirmed Russell's report, saying that deJongh was notified around 6 p.m. of Kendall's decision.
"Given that the ruling had been made, Gov. deJongh thought it best to take that section out of the speech," Greaux said.
While Russell said he did not support Kendall's decision, he did speak in favor of deJongh's speech, saying that it "exonerated the Legislature."
"Many of the issues that people like to blame the Legislature for is a result of poor communication between the existing departments and agencies," Russell said. "And the governor explained to people exactly who's responsible and who's accountable for the state of the territory."
Russell added that he also supports deJongh's plans for St. Croix, which include a number of economic-development initiatives. "The governor talked about having one person in charge of coordinating economic-development projects," he said. "I think that's a step in the right direction. So, I'm very pleased with his speech, and I look forward to working with him in the future."
St. Croix Sen. James Weber III expressed similar sentiments, saying that deJongh displayed an "understanding of what's happening" and is moving the territory toward an "efficient and well-organized government."
Weber said he also supports deJongh's commitment to growing small businesses, as well as his determination to give residents the opportunity to own their own homes. "That's really important," Weber said. "Because when you own your own home, you're tied to the local community."
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