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Bryan Wants SSI Parity, Stresses Need For Fairness With Territories In House Speech

WASHINGTON — Governor Albert Bryan, testifying virtually on Wednesday before the U.S. House’s Committee on Natural Resources, urged lawmakers to give territories parity with states for Supplemental Security Income or SSI, which provides monthly payments to meet basic needs, such as food, shelter and clothing.

According to a statement released by Government House, Bryan’s remarks came during a hearing on the Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs 2023 budget, where he also outlined the Virgin Islands “ongoing and new needs” from the federal agency including EPA concerns about reopening the Limetree Bay Refinery.

During his written testimony prior to questions from the lawmakers, Governor Bryan decried last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that denies equal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to the territories, an issue that also was brought up during questioning by Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan).

“A disabled American who lives in a State is entitled to receive Supplemental Security Income without regard to geographic location or what taxes are paid. If she moves to the Virgin Islands, she loses that right,” the governor said during his prepared testimony.

“Territories cannot look to the Constitution of the United States for equal protection under the law in making claims for Supplemental Security Income like their countrymen residing on the mainland,” he said. “Instead, the Court has directed us to appeal to the Congress. We ask you now: Grant our citizens parity with their fellow Americans and guarantee Virgin Islanders the same access to the Supplemental Security Income benefits. We are not second-class citizens.”  

During the questioning period, Congresswoman Tlaib said it is unacceptable that 3.5 million people living in U.S. territories are subject to a separate and unequal status quo and denied access to, and the full benefit of, lifesaving federal programs like SSI and Medicaid, and she asked how the lack of parity impacts residents of the territories.

“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,” Governor Bryan responded. “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.”

During his testimony, Governor Bryan also touched on a number of other issues he would like to see addressed by federal lawmakers:

•         Requiring federal agencies to waive matching fund obligations for disaster relief funding. “Significant amounts of appropriated disaster funds remain inaccessible to the Territory because of unrealistic local match requirements imposed by federal agencies,” Governor Bryan said.

•         Reversing tax code stipulations subjecting territories to the so-called “GILTI” tax, which is designed to discourage American companies from stashing profits in foreign tax havens. “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,” Governor Bryan said.

•         Assistance with the Environmental Protection Agency concerns about reopening the Limetree Bay Refinery. “We all share the EPA’s concern with safety. But it is not clear that the EPA understands the unique importance of the refinery to the economic, financial, and social well-being of the Virgin Islands community,” Governor Bryan said.

•         Restoring adequate funding for the Territory’s highways. “That funding was cut to the bone in 2012 and has never been fully restored, with predictably deleterious effects on our roads – yet another example of Americans receiving poorer treatment simply because of where in the United States they live. Singling out the four small territories for funding cuts was unfair and ignored our uniquely pressing transportation funding needs,” Governor Bryan said.

The entire hearing can be viewed at the House Committee on Natural Resources You Tube Page at www.youtube.com/user/NaturalResourcesDems.

By John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.