Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. spent a portion of his Tuesday afternoon press briefing discussing nurses’ pay, budget challenges and highlights, while acknowledging that in some cases government workers are better paid and better insured than the taxpayers paying into the General Fund.
Bryan, during the briefing, announced the repeal of COVID-19 travel policies, meaning the territory’s ports are open to all without restrictions. He also took time to address the territory’s nurses who staged a protest during Nurses Appreciation Week in mid-May, demanding fair wages and better working conditions.
“For whatever reason there has been some feeling like I don’t appreciate the nurses, but you know we have set aside $10 million at each hospital to compensate nurses and everything takes a little while to get out because we do have union contracts in place and it’s against the law for us really to be awarding money to anybody,” Bryan said. “Nurses, we appreciate you just like grocery workers and the bank tellers, and everybody else we have lined up for premium pay. That money is coming — it’s just we are doing so many things at one time.”
Negotiations with the nurses’ union were stalled for pandemic-related reasons but Bryan said the additional funding should give nurses “a nice chunk for our appreciation and because we know that the nurses here are severely underpaid compared to their counterparts in the mainland.”
Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, a nurse by training, added her department has begun “conversations with the nurses and are in negotiation. We started last week on Friday and will continue to do that, that’s separate from the incentive program that I know you are implementing. So that’s actually great news for the nurses.”
While the payments are imminent, Bryan reminded the public where they come from.
“The people in the community is who pay the taxes to pay our salaries,” Bryan said. “And we make more than them, we get better retirement systems than them, we have better health insurance than them. So this community, the private sector, actually makes sacrifices so government employees can have the services they have and most of the time we have better services — we have probably the best insurance plan in the country, one of the best retirement plans in the country.”
Around 30% percent of the community lives below the poverty line, so Bryan said, “We pay what our community can afford.”
Bryan also highlighted the Executive Biennial Budget for 2023 and 2024, which has been themed, “Framing our Financial Future.”
The administration, according to the Governor, projects revenue growth in five revenue collection categories: personal income tax, corporate income tax, real property tax, gross receipts tax, and excise tax.
With the additional projected revenue Bryan said the budget allots $16 million in public employee wage increases; funding for 1,200 new and vacant positions across multiple government agencies; $2 million to fund the Office of Disaster Recovery; $225,000 for the Office of Gun Violence and Prevention; $1.8 for expansion of the GVI Fellows program; $25 million for retroactive raises owed to retirees in 2023 and 2024; $5 million deposited into a cash reserve, and $5 million into the Transportation Trust Fund to allow for road repairs.
He added there was also legislation to approve adult-use cannabis.
“We have a $40 million funding gap this year that we need to fill with different types of funding resources,” Bryan said. “We want to get that going. And don’t listen to them when they talk to you about medicinal cannabis. Medicinal cannabis costs us money, it doesn’t make us a dime. We don’t tax it because it’s a medicine. So we need to get this bill moving, it’s been three years now, we need to get it through the Legislature so we can get some money going.”
Separately, the governor announced starting today there will no longer be a requirement for travelers to be tested upon entering the territory and the travel portal would be removed.
“We are at a point now where we have the tools and the information necessary to protect ourselves from serious illness because of COVID-19,” Bryan said. “What doesn’t change though is the fact that the federal government requires you to have a negative covid test within 24 hours from a foreign port.”
Currently the territory has a 11.58% positivity rating and there are 664 active cases in the territory of which 487 are on St. Croix, 147 on St. Thomas, and 30 on St. John. Of the positive cases there are six hospitalizations on St. Thomas and three on St. Croix.
Encarnacion said continued use of COVID-19 protocols are important, but “businesses and government offices have the right to determine mask policies. Please be respectful of that. Buses, ferries, taxis, and airplanes have the right to determine what occurs in their facilities as well. Please respect the rights of others as we ask them to respect your rights.”
She added it is important to recognize that COVID-19 has not gone away and “spikes may go up and down and that’s what the definition of epidemic is.”