An Open Letter from Congresswoman Stacey E. Plaskett
Dear Participants of the 3rd Virgin Islands Advocacy Day:
I would like to publicly express my sincere gratitude and appreciation for the time, energy and subject matter expertise the participants of the 3rdAdvocacy Day in Washington DC voice our community’s issues on July 17, 2019. As you are aware, unlike most states which have large delegations of Members in Congress, I am the only Member to speak directly each day on the issues of the Virgin Islands in the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. As a result, Advocacy Day was created to amplify the voice of the Virgin Islands on Capitol Hill through legislative, business and community stakeholders like yourselves on timely issues developing in Washington that affect the Virgin Islands. The Members of Congress and policymakers you met with are developing legislation for the Fall which I believe will be acted on in the Fall that will directly impact areas critical to the U.S. Virgin Islands’ (USVI) short and long-term progress.
The meetings you had with Members of Congress and their senior staff focused on three timely areas; economic development, our ongoing recovery from the disastrous hurricanes in 2017, and the territory’s healthcare crisis. More specifically your discussion with Senators, Representatives and Senior Policy Staff identified several measures in those areas including, but not limited to: improving and expediting the payment and approval process for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects, addressing the rapidly approaching fiscal Medicaid cliff, tax issues related to the reimbursement of the Earned Income and Child Tax Credit (EITC/CTC) and tax provisions affecting the Virgin Islands. Your travel to Washington in mid-July ensured that policymakers heard directly from stakeholders before Congress adjourns the end of July for the entire month of August. For example, when Congress returns to Washington the week of September 9th, there will only be fifteen legislative days to address the Medicaid cliff which expires on September 30th. Separately, Congress is working on corrective legislation related to several tax provisions.
The amount of money set aside by Congress for the Virgin Islands to recover, repair and rebuild has been enormous. Over $5.8 billion has been procured to/for the Virgin Islands recovery, which is over $57,000.00 per person (per capita). In addition to funding, laws were changed specifically for the Virgin Islands to allow funding to be set aside to strengthen resilience provisions by requiring FEMA to include all pre-disaster related costs in determining whether to repair or replace critical infrastructure in the Virgin Islands to industry standards. Through appropriations provided by Congress thus far, over $1.8 billion has been obligated for the Virgin Islands by the FEMA through its Public Assistance Grant Program. Another $1.8 billion has been allocated for the Virgin Islands for the Community Disaster Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Despite positive steps much more work remains, particularly with FEMA’s implementation of changes to the law that Congress has made. FEMA’s treatment of the territories is of great concern. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has pointed out to Congress, the appropriate process for implementing resiliency provisions is still unclear, two years after the hurricanes. Numerous critical infrastructure projects are on hold pending FEMA guidance. Having individuals attend Advocacy Day who interface directly with FEMA and HUD, as well as several business owners and non-profits who are directly impacted by the bureaucracy, was extremely helpful in educating and driving Members to exert pressure on those federal agencies where Virgin Islands funding is being held hostage.
The Virgin Islands is facing a healthcare funding crisis which can potentially collapse our healthcare system on a matter of months. After that deadline, critical funding to the Virgin Islands for Medicaid is scheduled to end. The territory is projected to have fully expended the $142.5 million in federal Medicaid funding provided under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA) and the temporary two year 100% federal matching rate by September 30, 2019. To prevent this potential collapse from happening again, my bill, H.R. 1354, The Territories Health Equity Act of 2019, would provide equitable (state-like) treatment in Medicaid to the territories. Your engagement on this issues has already made a tremendous difference. Leadership in Congress has sponsored H.R. 131, the Territories Health Care Improvement Act, which will soon be voted on by Congress. This is a tremendous win for the territory. Without the changes we have requested, 15,000 Virgin Islanders would lose healthcare under Medicaid and critical services would be in jeopardy, further destabilizing our healthcare infrastructure.
Having tax experts who operate in the Virgin Islands, along with businesses and individuals who are impacted by tax laws was enormously helpful in explaining how U.S. tax law has negatively impacted the Virgin Islands economy. For example, in the Virgin Islands, the EITC and CTC are paid solely by the government of the Virgin Islands, annually costing the government $20 Million and $7 Million, respectively. Additionally, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TJCA) of 2017 unintentionally created barriers for investment in the Virgin Islands for U.S.-based companies and individuals. We are looking to restore incentives in place prior to the TCJA and also modify income sourcing rules involving possessions to allow the Virgin Islands Economic Development Commission to attract more business to the territory.
Furthermore, we are looking to amend the TCJA to allow more areas of the Virgin Islands to be designated as Opportunity Zones, thus, creating new incentives for developers to build in our islands – ports to support shipping and cruise lines, hotels, etc. Having shipping companies, trucking companies, and hoteliers at the Virgin Islanders Advocacy Day was a great representation of how amending the law would help the Virgin Islands.
I am supremely confident that through our collective advocacy, and working with Governor Albert Bryan, we are making great strides in addressing these issues. I look forward to continuing our partnership, and utilizing the extraordinary skills you all possess to improve the lives of everyday Virgin Islanders. All Virgin Islanders should be proud of how we all worked together and represented masterfully our community on the Hill. Thank you for making the 3rd Virgin Islands Advocacy Day a success.