At the outset let me state that I strongly oppose the legislation to create the federally-mandated chief financial officer (CFO) position. I do so for both philosophical and practical reasons. The one good thing that has come of this proposal is that it has provoked a dialogue amongst us as to how we view our political future and how we view the role of the federal government in local affairs.
When I took over as governor, I inherited federal oversight of our housing authority, a third-party fiduciary of our public schools, consent decrees controlling our prisons and waste management programs, and I had to agree to monitors of our police department to provide oversight over the efforts to correct past misdeeds. Each day and every day I am called upon to try to find ways within our means to address the concerns, problems and past errors that caused this outside oversight to be imposed. Yet in each of its incarnations, we have bristled at Washington’s intrusion in our affairs of state.
It serves no useful purpose for me to decry the past, and certainly our path forward has been made more difficult by the collapse in the global economy and the onset of the Great Recession. that was quickly upon us after I took office. But even in these most challenging times, I can think of no greater step backwards than for us to ask Congress to legislate itself into our daily affairs.
By federal constitution, Congress is responsible for the administration of the territories. They tell us what to do when it is convenient to their interests, but exclude us from federal programs for our people when it serves their budgetary purposes. We cannot vote for president, our delegate is non-voting, and thus we are left with the worst formulation: oversight and regulation of our affairs with no countervailing political influence to assure fair and equal treatment for our people. Arbitrary and inequitable treatment of Virgin Islanders abound, and can be seen in such areas as inequitable IRS oversight, border protection, parity access to education and Medicaid funding, and access to SSI, to name a few.
We have our Congressional allies and executive branch supporters, and believe me their guidance and support are invaluable. However, we – the people of the United States Virgin Islands – must be the solution that we are looking for. There are no shortcuts. If we are to continue to find our path towards a constitutional government that exhibits our political maturation and our full acceptance of the consequences of our own actions, we must not fall back on the too-easy solution and false comfort of believing that we can do as we want, spend as we wish, and wait for Uncle Sam to bail us out.
And for us through our elected delegate to Congress to seek the imposition of a federal CFO because we – either in her eyes or in the eyes of the Congress – cannot competently fulfill our responsibilities is something that I cannot and that we as a community must not accept.
The proposed CFO Bill (H.R. 3706) inserts a federally-created agency that would be duplicative of the Office of Management and Budget and the Senate’s post auditor. It would remove the authority of the governor and the Legislature to make important spending plan decisions, as provided in the Revised Organic Act. Even more troubling is the fact the CFO has no identified funding or financial support, so, at a time that we are cutting back the cost and scale to a more efficient and affordable public sector, we would be mandated to create a new office (to include supporting staff) that must be supported with our tax dollars.
As a practical matter, the proposal will not work because it does not address the real problem. Our problem is not the disagreements between executive and legislative branches. Indeed, those disagreements are the essence of the separation of powers in the divided branches of U.S. Constitutional government. It may be messy, but it is democracy. The proposal rests on the false premise that a “qualified person” doing our revenue projections will “end the acrimony and mistrust among the different branches of government.” It will not. And indeed the essential tension between the branches of government is one of the keys to the success of our form of government. Unfortunately, this bill seeks to legislate trust, by inserting one more voice into the equation, rather than address the specific root causes for our current challenges, and therefore it is an illusion of substance.
I have voiced for years my concerns with our financial situation, and this is why I take very seriously my obligations to provide consistent and accurate financial reports, just as I work to promptly respond to audits and to improve transparency in government operations. But we cannot out-source the tough decisions that those of us elected to public office are required by duty and law to make. I know people are hurting and families are scared, and each day I balance between the reality of ‘what is’ and the promise that there is indeed light at the end of this tunnel and that we do have a bright future. I have made some difficult and unpopular decisions on austerity programs that streamlined operations, reduced central government employees, increased taxes and fees and cut some programs.
It is difficult, but even as those that elect us react angrily to the decisions we make, we must not seek salvation by cloaking ourselves in federal legislation or in solutions made by others in Washington, D.C. If the thought is that we as a territory require special treatment, as opposed to equal and fair treatment, because we are not capable or competent to govern ourselves, then I find that premise shameful given our history as a people.
Our generation must not forsake the legacy of those who cleared the way, of those who fought long and hard for greater autonomy and self-government. Rather than focus on the illusion of change, we would be better served to deal directly with the root causes of our economic challenges and continue taking steps to ease what nationally recognized economist Paul Krugman refers to as a “nasty, brutish, and long” economic recovery.
However well-intentioned, H.R. 3706 misses the mark and is a precipitous step backwards in our evolution as a territory. We can do better.
John P. deJongh, Jr.