Has it been a year already? Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. delivered his first State of the Territory speech?
Why did time fly by so quickly? Could it be because every day in the Virgin Islands has been a struggle against a broke government and a broken economy, broken electric company, broken infrastructure and broken education system?
Tonight, Governor Bryan will give his second State of the Territory speech, so it is appropriate to look back at that first speech to compare what he said with what he actually delivered and consider what the territory needs to hear tonight.
Governor Bryan made it clear last year that we were broke. He told us we had no money and no credit. Then he told us he was going to make a lot of changes that would get us out of the financial hole and put us on the road to solvency if not actual prosperity.
Nobody was surprised that we were broke. The surprise was the governor’s revelations of how bad things actually were and how much had been concealed by fuzzy math.
Nor was anyone surprised to hear the new governor say — many times — his favorite word: change. He had said it constantly during his campaign, and he made it the key word of that big speech on Jan. 28, 2019.
In the first part of the speech, Governor Bryan did what any good leader/administrator/manager is supposed to do: Identify and clearly define the most important problems.
In the second part, he kind of/sort of/almost took the appropriate next step: Identifying and defining the possible solutions.
Missing from the speech, however, was the third part of every successful problem-solving effort: Articulating and launching a well-defined, detailed action plan for how the solutions will be achieved.
Anybody can spot a problem, and many can imagine ways to solve the problem. But few can execute the solution.
The Virgin Islands needs this governor to be one of those special few who can and will go beyond the concept stage to the concrete reality of actually making the changes that fix the problems.
Tonight, the governor should tell us, clearly and without pulling punches, exactly what he and his administration have done about each V.I. crisis, which he cited, as follows:
• Government spending exceeds revenue, creating annual structural deficits of $200 million to $450 million.
• Government has borrowed $212 million and can’t borrow any more. We have minimal cash on hand and no access to additional credit.
• Government must be on a pay-as-you-go basis.
• Government owes nearly $270 million to vendors and taxpayers awaiting refunds.
• Government owes $150 million to GERS.
• Luis Hospital was forecasting a monthly cash loss of $1.5 million.
• Schneider Regional Medical Center was forecasting a monthly cash loss of $1.2 million.
• The hospitals were $50 million in debt even before the 2017 hurricanes.
Tonight, we need to hear which, if any, of the bills have been paid. How much was paid and where did we get the money? Where will we get money to pay future bills?
In addition to, and actually contributing to, the financial mess we’re in is the imminent collapse of the Government Employees’ Retirement System. Every V.I. governor in the last 20 years has had to dance with this devil, and none could ever master the steps of the complicated money minuet. But Governor Bryan’s speech last year sounded like he just might be ready, willing and able to do it. He said:
“No economy or community can be stable with a pension system in jeopardy that directly affects almost 20 percent of its population and indirectly more than 50 percent. Previous administrations were only able to contribute to the GERS one-third what was actuarially required to keep the system solvent.
“The Government of the Virgin Islands has underfunded the pension system and contributed to an unfunded liability of 5 billion dollars. The Government Employees’ Retirement System has been a talking point in State of the Territory for the last 20 years. It is time for the rubber to meet the road. My first official meeting as governor of the Virgin Islands was with the GERS board, and we have begun the work of securing dedicated revenue sources to pay down the unfunded liability.”
Tonight, the people need to hear where, exactly, the rubber has met the road.
We need to know about and have confidence in whatever revenue sources have been found for GERS.
Is it the sale of recreational marijuana? If so, can the Virgin Islands grow enough, harvest enough and sell enough in time to save GERS? If the honest answer is “No,” then what is the answer — what is the solution — that will get us to “Yes”?
Last year, the governor said, “We are proposing a restructuring of the existing plan that will preserve retirement benefits for future generations.”
Tonight, the people of the Virgin Islands want to know exactly what that restructured plan is. Details, please.
Among the other problems — and the detail-deprived solutions — in last year’s speech were the government’s inefficiency and inability to get contracts through the procurement process on time. Digitizing the government was the solution.
Well, how’s that going? This has been deemed crucially important for at least 20 years. A lot of money has been spent, and what have we got?
Perhaps we can consider the government on the road to “digitized” if we ever are able to e-file income tax returns and renew vehicle registrations online.
The 2019 State of the Territory speech gave the governor, who previously was Labor Commissioner, a chance to expound on one of his dreams: developing a “workforce pipeline” that will “utilize our Department of Education in tandem with the Department of Labor, the University of the Virgin Islands and our Career and Technical Board to focus on the intersectionality and make those our priorities in creating our workforce pipeline.”
He continued: “The key to this success, however, is continuing our focus on early childhood education. The expansion of the education system to include K-4, which has been mandated by law, is far overdue. That is the foundation of this pipeline.”
That sounded great, but unfortunately it went off the rails back there where he said multiple departments would “work in tandem.” How would that be accomplished, considering the notorious lack of inter-agency cooperation and the jealousies, suspicious and hostilities that traditionally undermine their attempts at cooperative efforts? Details, please.
Ears perked up last year when the governor spoke of de-politicizing the position of Attorney General by making it a six-year term — putting it beyond the reach of the governor who appoints him or her.
That was a good idea, with a good detail. So what happened? Details, please.
Many in the territory are hoping to hear the status of other projects and other ideas, including rebuilding infrastructure, schools and hospitals; boosting tourism and improving education.
We the people deserve to hear what the governor has done to change the course on which the territory was heading. Specifically what has he done that he said needed to be done, to include:
• Stabilize the government.
• Restart our private-sector economy to avert fiscal collapse.
• Reform the Economic Development Admin-istration
• Stabilize the Port Authority.
• Improve the health care system.
• Reduce violent crime.
• Improve education.
• Restructure the Waste Management Au-thority.
And let’s not overlook the elephant in the room, although the governor may not be able to see it in the dark — and it definitely will be dark at some point because WAPA will most certainly have an outage.
WAPA is more than the elephant in the room — the topic that’s bigger than anything else — it is the thing that is crushing the economy and the spirit of the people. The governor should devote a lot of time in his speech tonight to identifying WAPA’s problems, defining what causes the problems and explaining what solutions are available.
And then Governor Bryan must tell us which solution he, through his personal leadership and by the powers and authority he holds, has chosen and how he is going to make that solution a reality.
Governor Bryan, please don’t keep us in the dark. WAPA already does enough of that.