We had hoped to see the government turn over a new leaf this month when its legislative agenda was unveiled in the first Speech from the Throne under its tenure.
We were disappointed.
Though most of the promises laid out in the speech are laudable, the new government appears to be following in its predecessors’ footsteps by biting off more than it can chew at the start of the legislative session.
For years, the government has used the annual Throne speech to promise dozens of pieces of legislation. Typically, the proposed laws are well conceived, but the great majority aren’t passed in the designated timeframe and they quietly get carried over to the next Throne speech.
The address delivered last Thursday by Governor Gus Jaspert — which included 52 promised items even though previous administrations rarely have passed more than 20 laws in any one session — appeared to be more of the same.
Given the ongoing pattern, we have argued frequently that the sitting government should set out a more realistic Throne speech each year while also publishing a legislative roadmap for the longer term.
It is not too late for the new administration. The Virgin Islands Party likely has about three and a half more years in office: It should prove its commitment to serious leadership by working with the opposition to create a manageable workflow designed to keep the House on course throughout that period while giving the public a chance to plan ahead and weigh in where appropriate.
Don’t get us wrong: We would love to see the HOA pass all of the promised laws in the coming session, and legislators certainly should do their best to complete as much as they can. To that end, they can set themselves apart from their predecessors by eschewing grandstanding, politicking and bickering while instead concentrating on the far more important business of passing laws.
To be fair, legislating in the VI is notoriously difficult: The HOA is required to handle many of the same matters considered by far larger legislatures, and with a tiny fraction of the manpower. But this is all the more reason to plan carefully and to stay on track.
Though most of the bills announced last week were laudable, we also noted a few specific areas of concern.
For example, even though the speech was themed “Going Green, Going Smart,” it demonstrated a troubling disregard for the environment.
One red flag was a promise to amend the Climate Change Trust Fund Act 2015 to “allow for greater access to funding that may become available to the Virgin Islands.” This step seems unnecessary: The existing law creates a well-conceived trust fund overseen by an independent board — which, incidentally, was disbanded by the current government in April. Last week’s rhetoric sounds like code for wresting control of the fund away from the board, which would be a big mistake.
Meanwhile, another extremely important bill — the comprehensive environmental management act that has been in the works for more than 15 years — was removed from this year’s speech, as was long-promised freedom-of-information legislation.
These are all troubling developments, but perhaps they would be more understandable if the government were to release a longer-term legislative agenda that enables the public to see its vision beyond the coming HOA session.
A strong legal framework is essential if the territory is to “build back stronger” from Hurricane Irma as leaders have promised so often.