The Governor’s annual State of the Territory speech is supposed to serve three purposes:
• Tell the people exactly how things are.
• Explain the causes and effects of what’s working and what’s not.
• Describe the efforts under way, or planned, to make improvements or sustain services and programs that are already successful.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. touched on all three last night in his 63-page, 13,227-word speech, but on the whole his speech — like his administration thus far — was disappointing, even though the theme was, as he put it, “Bringing Progress to Our People.”
It wasn’t so much what Governor Bryan said but rather what he left unsaid that ultimately will define his term as governor.
He campaigned promising to “Change Course Now,” but in the two years he has been in office, he has ignored or veered away from several of the major changes he led the territory to expect.
His speech did, however, deliver good news about one of his cornerstone promises: The merger of WICO and VIPA. He said he is proposing that the Public Finance Authority’s ownership interest in WICO be transferred to the Port Authority and that WICO take full responsibility for the management of all cruise ports in the territory.
Disappointingly, near the end of his remarks on the topic, it became clear that after two years, the merger is still just an idea, not a fact. “We have begun the discussions about the most efficient way to make the transfer,” Bryan said.
Regarding WAPA, which he led voters in 2018 to expect he would fix, he cited the infusion of $75 million in federal money for a contract for four new generators and a battery storage system. These will replace the aging and poorly maintained ones that are prone to shut down frequently and that Virgin Islanders have come to imagine are held together with duct-tape and run by a bevy of gerbils on a wheel.
He acknowledged that WAPA has profound problems with billing and management inefficiencies, which was not news to Virgin Islanders. Bryan made “fixing” WAPA one of his campaign promises, and the fact that the problems endure after two years makes his words less than reassuring.
The governor also said he has stabilized and boosted the economy — a claim that must have surprised the 10,667 now unemployed workers and the many commercial interests that have gone out of business or are barely hanging on by their fingernails.
He did not go anywhere near the topic of the government’s wasteful spending: The hundreds of high-end vehicles for government officials and pet employees; the massive move of government offices into a privately owned shopping center; the reversal of furloughs and pay cuts for government employees; the hiring of family and friends; the travel; the executive branch credit cards.
As accomplishments, he touted construction projects that in fact are still on the drawing board, such as the new Cancryn Junior High School, Charlotte Amalie High School and Luis Hospital. He even dragged out and praised the Paul E. Joseph Stadium project, on which the government has wasted $18 million with nothing to show for it after 15 years but an empty, wet field.
In all, the governor failed to reassure the people that such ideas and plans are not just pretty promises, equivalent to a string of Christmas tree lights that he plugs in once a year in January to cheer us up and give us hope.
Disappointingly, he blamed COVID-19 and the previous Legislature, as if they were twin grinches who stole his administration’s opportunity to succeed.
He devoted nearly one-fourth of his remarks to describing the problems and unanticipated challenges that the pandemic created for his administration and gave the impression that his focus on preventing the virus from spreading took his gaze away from other issues waiting to be solved.
He blamed the Legislature for his lack of progress on stopping GERS’ slide into default, specifically:
• The Legislature looked askance at Bryan’s push for legalization of recreational marijuana. He has said revenue from the sales could breathe life into the moribund retirement system. The senators have said he’s blowing smoke (or words to that effect). The issue is still up in the air.
• The Legislature was not dazzled by the governor’s proposals for restructuring government debt as a means to gain re-entry into the bond market. Complex and fraught with risks, the two latest schemes have withered under Senate scrutiny.
On crime, the governor had to reach far — possibly beyond reality — to give the territory hope that law enforcement is successfully battling the onslaught of gun violence. He noted the many obstacles, including the chronically understaffed Police Department, but he offered some encouraging information:
• He is mandating beefed-up patrols.
• The Police Auxiliary has returned to action.
• A Community Service Officer program will introduce potential recruits to the job of policing.
• The Office of Gun Violence Prevention has been authorized.
On Tourism, he did not provide any convincing proof or promises that he has, or even can, diversify the economy away from dependence on cruise ships and hotels.
He touted expansion of the leisure marine industry as a result of his administration’s taking advantage of the opportunity created by the BVI’s pandemic shutdown, and he also noted his office’s support for a mega-yacht marina in Coral Bay.
Disappointingly he did not offer realistic hope that our tourism-based economy can rebound quickly after COVID-19. The Tourism Department leadership has been asleep at the wheel while many Caribbean rivals have raced ahead with appealing strategies and initiatives.
He praised the UVI RTPark for attracting 13 new technology companies, putting the total at 29, but he spoke of an idea certain to send chills down the spine of Virgin Islanders concerned about the government’s tendency to jump into potentially risky investments. Without much detail, he said he will seek legislation to establish a Catalyst Fund “to provide gap financing to high-impact economic development projects.” He said, “The fund would issue loans to bridge the amount the borrower can obtain from more conventional sources and the amount needed to start or sustain a business.”
Bryan has made much out of his commitment to transparency, and his 63-page speech last night covered many topics, ideas and plans — but like his nearly daily flurry of press releases, radio interviews and press conferences, his speech raised questions he did not answer. Actions speak louder than words and merely saying one is transparent is not the same as actually being transparent.
Gov. Bryan has been around government long enough to know what needs to be done, and elements of his speech were hopeful signs that he has good intentions and a strong grasp of the issues, even if he does not always have realistic solutions.
If he can follow through on his campaign promises and truly “Change Course Now,” the state of the territory may yet change for the better.
We wish him well.