Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., with Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero of Guam and Lemaro Peleti Mauga of American Samoa, testified before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Wednesday in support of the Interior Department’s 2023 budget proposal.
At the beginning of the hearing, committee chair Gregorio Sablan, a delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands, introduced the governors and said they all face several similar challenges and have lost tourism income over the last few years. He said President Joe Biden will continue to get parts of the Build Back Better plan passed, which will help the territories.
All three governors talked about the needs of their respective communities for federal funding, especially for health care and infrastructure. Guam needs a new hospital and the federal land on which to build it. American Samoa, which escaped the COVID-19 pandemic for months, has a weaker health care system now that they have had to deal with 5,500 cases and 30 deaths.
During his five-minute report, Bryan said the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are an “integral part of the United States” but are treated like second-class citizens. He lamented that the territories do not have parity regarding Medicaid funding, and Supplemental Security Income and tax laws make it difficult to compete for investors as a “foreign country” rather than part of the U.S.
The U.S. tax code designates territories in a category similar to that of a foreign country which discourages American companies from investing in the insular islands, Bryan said.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands is neither foreign nor a tax haven. It is a U.S. territory whose tax laws are promulgated by Congress. Treating us like a foreign country makes no sense and is contrary to decades of congressional policies intended to encourage U.S. investment in the territories.”
Bryan also talked about “special challenges” such as the difficulty in accessing disaster relief funding because of “unreasonable” requirements to match funds.
“Significant amounts of appropriated disaster funds remain inaccessible to the territory because of unrealistic local match requirements imposed by federal agencies,” he said.
A big economic problem facing the territory, Bryan said, is the closure of the Limetree Bay Refinery, last year, leaving 800 people without work. He said he hopes the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. government understand the importance of the refinery to the Virgin Islands and help to reopen it.
Bryan said the territory was granted approval for highway funds in 2012, but then it was cut “to the bone.” He asked that it be restored because the lack of funding has added to quicker deterioration of Virgin Islands roads. Cutting transportation funds to only the territories was unfair and ignored dire funding needs, he added.
This year, the Supreme Court dealt another blow to the territory by denying equal Supplemental Security Income benefits as stateside residents receive. A disabled American who lives on the mainland is entitled to receive Supplemental Security Income regardless of where they live. If he or she moves to the Virgin Islands, they lose the benefit.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), called it an “outrage” and asked the governors how the “lack of parity” impacts the residents, Bryan immediately answered, “Families split up.”
“For us it means families splitting up. A lot of time we have families that are here and the wife or the husband would move to the states with the child in order to get better care and benefit from those benefits,” he said. “It would make such a huge difference in our community for parents raising children with disabilities, especially when they age-out of regular schools and they need other support systems that those parents can’t afford.”
Tlaib pointed out that 3.5 million people in U.S. territories are subject to separate and unequal rules and are denied access to full benefits of programs like SSI and Medicaid.
Several other committee members made comments or asked questions. A few commented that Interior and the territories need to be aware of China’s encroaching on several Pacific Islands that are not insular properties of the U.S. They were also concerned that climate change is not being addressed.
Sablan agreed there should be no Medicaid cap for the territories. He also was adamant about the importance of the Interior Department helping the territories develop comprehensive energy plans and using the funding that was set aside to accomplish this.