Senators gave Gov. Kenneth Mapp high marks for laying out a clear picture of the territory’s financial woes and pointing to a way forward at his first state of the territory address Monday, saying they planned to work together with him where possible.
"He laid the foundation that we are in a serious financial situation and have to get to work as soon as possible," Senate President Neville James (D-St. Croix) said after the speech in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
"He has a good bunch of senators who will go to work with him and a good delegate to Congress, so hopefully things will work out and we can see more chemistry than we have seen in the recent past between the delegate, the Legislature the governor – and the lieutenant governor, because he is going to very important in this as well," James said.
Mapp both raised the alarm on this year’s government budget and outlined some new spending priorities, Monday.
"He put himself in, let’s say, a unique position. On the one hand the money is not where we would want, and on the other we need to make payments" on some major obligations, James said. "So we will see what he will come up with as well as what we come up with in the Legislature," to pare back the budget while still funding critical needs like improvements at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix.
In the end, there may not be a good way to bridge the entire gap, James suggested.
"I think we are going to need some federal help. That is just my position," James said.
While optimistic and supportive of the governor’s aims, James said Mapp’s plans to possibly consolidate schools would need careful deliberation.
"That is going to be very, very tricky," James said. Students usually go to the closest school and closing one will inconvenience students and parents, he said. "We should not be doing that just to do that and save money. If we are going to do it, we have to do it right and for the right reasons," he said. "We can create an even greater problem if we don’t do that right from the start," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Sammuel Sanes also said he was expecting a poor financial outlook and was happy to hear the governor mention specific initiatives like consolidating agencies and hiring more personnel to help with delinquent tax collecting.
"It is my opinion and that of others that there are tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in uncollected tax," Sanes said. "Even though he painted a gloomy picture of our dismal financial condition, one thing he did emphasize – and I totally agree – is that all of us must work together to find solutions to these issues," he said.
Sanes and other senators saw some conflict between the administration’s plans to cut budgets overall and its plans to hire more police and increase spending in some areas. But Sanes said he believed more aggressive tax collection may help fill the gaps and that some hiring was important.
"I want to make clear these two job areas are essential; one is tax collecting and the other is hiring police officers. We need to make a commitment to public safety," he said.
Sanes said he also approved of Mapp’s emphasis on expanding care for individuals with mental and physical disabilities.
Sen. Tregenza Roach, a member of the minority caucus, found much to support, but also some areas of concern, in Mapp’s speech.
"I like the governor’s emphasis on senior care and mental health," Roach said after the speech. "I know when senior centers were closing I fought and … managed to keep one of those centers open. Those centers really support the quality of life of our seniors, so I support the governor on providing more services to seniors," he said.
Roach also said he supports Mapp’s slightly more confrontational approach to Hovensa and his announcement that the government was filing suit to seize Hovensa’s property, "because I was disappointed with the whole way the refinery issue was handled by the prior administration."
Roach said he supports planning and funding litigation.
"I know the 30th Legislature entertained the previous governor’s request to provide funding for litigation and I for one had already voted in favor of that," he said.
Roach said he wished Mapp had said more about federal funding to expand Medicaid and about the territory seeking to be included in the federal Supplemental Security Income program, and more specifics in general.
Speaking to the Legislature’s cameras after the speech, Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-St. Thomas) said he felt "optimistic" afterward. "He talked about strategic planning throughout the government. I think that is very important. I think all in all it was a pretty good speech," Blyden said. :
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd (D-at-large) told the Legislature’s cameras he wished Mapp had talked more about property taxes. Rapidly increasing property prices have disproportionately affected St. John, where Liburd lives, causing rapid property tax increases for St. John property owners.
"I was a little taken aback that he talked about sending out the 2015 tax bill in August," Liburd said. "I think we have an issue with it already. There is an issue there already. But I … spoke to the lieutenant governor … and he said we are going get together and take a look at those issues we are facing there.”
“I understand the need for money to run the government and I understand his approach to collecting taxes. But I also know that many of our people are struggling and having a hard time, particularly those who own property. So I am going to make it a priority to see how we can help those people," Liburd said.
Liburd told the Legislature’s media that a three-tiered system, with different rates for each island, might be a solution to the tax increases straining St. John property owners.
Aside from the property tax question, Liburd gave Mapp good marks for the speech. "I think what he did is beginning by telling us piece by piece what must be done," Liburd said.
Sen. Myron Jackson agreed Mapp "gave a fairly good overview of the financial crisis the territory faces,” and said he agreed with Mapp on finding and keeping federal grant monies and his priorities for senior care and mental health care. Like Roach, Jackson endorsed Mapp’s plans to sue Hovensa.
"I have been on that page a long time ago personally, so he will get my support going forward with that," Jackson said.