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Bryan Asks For $21 Million In Federal Funding Available Through Omnibus Bill

CHRISTIANSTED — Governor Albert Bryan issued the following statement regarding $21 million in Community Project Funding (CPF) requests he forwarded to Delegate Stacey Plaskett to submit to Congress for consideration under the $1.5 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, which President Biden signed into law in March:

“Congressional earmarks for federally funded local projects are back, and the Bryan-Roach Administration is working with Delegate Plaskett to have our requests put before Congress. We look forward to learning that our $21 million in CPF requests were accepted in Congress for these essential local projects that will bring about important outcomes in the Territory and greatly enhance the services available to Virgin Islanders.”

Governor Bryan is requesting federal funding through the Omnibus Appropriations Bill for:

• Two 2021 BearCat armored vehicles for the Virgin Islands Police Department ($1 million).

• STEM and afterschool programs for the Department of Education ($2.2 million).

• Bright Path Holistic Wellness afterschool programming and mental health services for low-income publichousing residents ($900,000).

• Seven ambulances for the V.I. Fire Service ($1.9 million).

• Virgin Islands Diabetes Center of Excellence remote patient monitoring, telehealth, and laboratory equipment ($995,000).

• Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency Emergency Operations Center for St. Croix ($1 million).

• Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency – St. Thomas Bertha C. Boschulte School on St. Thomas congregate shelter emergency power generator ($200,000).

• Virgin Islands Port Authority – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project planning for the maintenance of Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie harbors and related navigational aids ($2 million).

• Virgin Islands Department of Public Works – Estate La Grange flood risk management ($8.7 million).

• Community First Emergency & Supportive Services for St. Croix’s Formerly Homeless ($2.1 million).

President Biden signed the Omnibus Appropriations Bill into law on March 15, 2022, and for the first time in a decade, it includes a large portfolio of earmarks, or CPF, after Congress reinstated the process of directing federal funds for local projects in the 117th Congress. CPF is defined as any congressionally directed spending, tax benefit or tariff benefit that would benefit an entity or a specific state, locality or congressional district.

Because the funding is specified to a recipient, it is not subject to competitive award processes, and eligible projects include infrastructure projects, community programs, STEM and after-school programs, mental health services, and other local initiatives.

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Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett Shares More Details About Her VISA Waiver Act

WASHINGTON U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett released the following statement of clarification regarding her Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act’s (H.R. 5460) approval by the House Judiciary Committee:

“The Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act was passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, which is one step in the legislative process. The bill does not become law until passed by the House, passed by the Senate then signed by the President. The next step in this process will be for full House consideration. I am confident the measure will be considered by the full House in short order, and we are working to have a companion measure considered by the Senate.”

You can follow the progress of the Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act by clicking here.

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett released the following statement after her Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act (H.R. 5460) was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan vote of 24-14:

“I and my team have worked steadfastly with the House Judiciary Committee over several years on the Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act. I would like to thank my Republican colleague, Representative Thomas Massie from Kentucky, for his vote in favor of this bill.

“The Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act would allow the Department of Homeland Security to consider approving non-immigrant visitor visa waivers for entry into the U.S. Virgin Islands for up to 45 days (primarily for residents of neighboring Caribbean countries). Such a non-immigrant visitor visa waiver program is already being utilized successfully in both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands for nationals of other countries.

“This legislation would extend this same program to the U.S. Virgin Islands.  This limited visa waiver program would better enable the Virgin Islands to compete economically with other islands and nations in the Caribbean community. A nationwide U.S. Visa Waiver Program already allows nationals of certain countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.  This bill would apply solely to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and because the Virgin Islands is outside the U.S. customs zone by law, it would not allow entry into any other part of the United States.

I thank my colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee for their hard work during the marathon markup session that took place over the past few days.”

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Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar Mansplains Anime Beheading Video of AOC

PHOENIX — Arizona Representative Paul Gosar was facing criticism after he tweeted a video that included altered animation showing him striking Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a sword.

In a tweet Monday night, Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., referred to Gosar as “a creepy member I work with” and said he “shared a fantasy video of him killing me.” She added that Gosar would face no consequences because Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy “cheers him on with excuses.” She also said that institutions “don’t protect” women of color.

A fellow House Democrat, Ted Lieu of California, referred to Gosar’s tweet as “sick behavior” and said in a tweet of his own: “In any workplace in America, if a coworker made an anime video killing another coworker, that person would be fired.”

Gosar, a Republican, posted the video Sunday afternoon with a note saying: “Any anime fans out there?”

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar Mansplains Anime Beheading Video of AOC

The roughly 90-second video is an altered version of a Japanese anime series, interspersed with shots of border patrol officers and migrants at the southern U.S. border. During one roughly 10-second section of the video, animated characters whose faces have been replaced with Gosar and fellow Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado are seen fighting other animated characters.

In one scene, Gosar’s character is seen striking the one made to look like Ocasio-Cortez in the neck with a sword.

Twitter later attached a warning to the tweet saying “it violated the Twitter Rules about hateful conduct. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”

Gosar is known as an ardent ally of former President Donald Trump. He was among the lawmakers whose phone or computer records a House panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection asked social media and telecommunications companies to preserve as they were potentially involved with efforts to “challenge, delay or interfere” with the certification or otherwise try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

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Bryan Thanks President Biden, Congress For Passage of U.S. Infrastructure Bill

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Governor Albert Bryan thanked President Biden and the U.S. Congress for working together to pass the president’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will help the local government maintain its efforts to restore the territory to full economic recovery.

“This is a landmark package of legislation that will bring the country, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, a much-needed economic shot in the arm after the devastating financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Governor Bryan said. “President Biden and both Houses of Congress are to be commended for their determination to assist the American people, and on behalf of the U.S. Virgin Islands, we are grateful that our leaders were able to stay on track through weeks of negotiations to bring this bill to a successful conclusion.”

The provisions of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the U.S. House passed on Friday, and which has already passed the Senate and now goes to President Biden for his signature, are intended to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. In addition to other allocations, the U.S. Virgin Islands will receive a share of the following appropriations outlined in the bill:

  • $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major projects
  • $65 billion for broadband
  • $55 billion for water systems
  • $39 billion for public transit

The governor also encouraged Congress to continue its work toward passage of the $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better Act,” which the House did not take action on Friday and still has to pass through both chambers of Congress.

“On behalf of the Territory, I also want to urge the House and Senate to expeditiously finish approving the “Build Back Better Act,” which would greatly enhance the lives of Virgin Islanders through benefits to social services in multiple areas,” Governor Bryan said. “It is my hope that our elected officials in Washington, D.C., continue their efforts and maintain the progress they have made to help raise the standard of living for the Territory and across the country.”

Under the current version of the “Build Back Better Act,” benefits to the USVI include increases to Medicaid, funds for tuition, capital projects, climate change mitigation and historic preservation and other assistance for community development.

Bryan also thanked Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett for working closely with her colleagues in Washington to ensure the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on behalf of the people of the Virgin Islands.

The social media comments on this news article tended to be about practical matters closer to home.

“Who do I contact for over grown bushes in a road that overgrown completely,” Rosy Marie said on Facebook.

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Commissioner Saul Writes To Congress About the State of Social Security Services

Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, wrote to key members of Congress to raise awareness of the resources Social Security needs to recover from the ongoing pandemic and improve service. 

“Since becoming Commissioner, I have focused our actions and our resources on efforts to improve the service we provide to the millions of people who turn to us for help. I have been clear in my budget requests about what it takes to improve service and maintain the integrity of our programs: both additional frontline staff to help people now, and information technology (IT) investments to improve our future,” said Commissioner Saul.  “2021 is a critical year to shape the agency for post-pandemic success, but our resource constraints will delay our recovery. I appreciate President Biden’s support of our needs with his FY 2022 budget request of nearly $14.2 billion for us, which is $1.3 billion more than what we received this year to operate our agency. No one anticipated the duration of the pandemic and the ongoing challenges it presents.” 

The full text of the letter follows: 

April 21, 2021 

The Honorable John B. Larson 

Chair, Subcommittee on Social Security, Committee on Ways and Means 

U.S. House of Representatives 

Washington, DC 20515 

Dear Subcommittee Chair Larson: 

I am writing because I want to be clear about the negative impact to Social Security services due to the ongoing pandemic and our funding level in fiscal year (FY) 2021. Our FY 2021 annual appropriation was nearly $900 million less than my original request. It is effectively level with the funding we have received for each of the last four years, despite significant increases in costs that we do not control – such as the Government-wide pay increases. 

The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented changes. The safety of the public and our employees has been the paramount driver of how we deliver services during the pandemic. To protect the public and our employees, we have necessarily limited in-person service to critical situations that can only be resolved in-person. While we continue to serve the public over the phone and online, we are still experiencing issues receiving and verifying documents and medical evidence we need to make decisions. Even with fewer applications in FY 2021, pandemic-related challenges and operational constraints present numerous barriers to employees completing workloads timely. In FY 2020, the average time it took us to complete an action in our field offices increased by 20 percent, significantly reducing our productivity. We are working diligently to address these challenges, but the abrupt changes to the way we do our work has caused bottlenecks in certain workloads and service deterioration beyond our control. On February 23, 2021, we shared with your staff the potential implications of our FY 2021 funding level to further harm services. 

However, our operational challenges have been aggravated by our inability to fully use our program integrity funding. To use this funding, we must complete cost-saving continuing disability reviews (CDR) and Supplemental Security Income redeterminations. We have had to reduce our planned full medical CDRs by 30 percent due to the pandemic, the lowest level since FY 2013. We deferred these workloads in the early part of the pandemic to protect beneficiaries’ income and healthcare and to reduce the burden on the medical community, which had stopped most elective services. 

While we restarted these workloads at the end of FY 2020, we are handling them through the mail and over the phone. During the pandemic, these complex workloads often require multiple contacts with a beneficiary, which slows our ability to complete this work. In addition, over 30 percent of our initial disability claims and CDRs require a consultative exam (CE) with a medical provider so that we can obtain enough medical information to make a decision. Right now, just over 70 percent of our CE providers are scheduling in-person exams. We have focused our limited CE capacity on initial disability claims to ensure that we can provide benefits to people who qualify. Even with that focus, the average processing times for initial disability claims increased about 45 days in the last year. Ultimately, we currently estimate the constraints on our program integrity funding deepens our shortfall by approximately $200 million. 

Since becoming Commissioner, I have focused our actions and our resources on efforts to improve the service we provide to the millions of people who turn to us for help. I have been clear in my budget requests about what it takes to improve service and maintain the integrity of our programs: both additional frontline staff to help people now, and information technology (IT) investments to improve our future. IT is fundamental to offering the public more electronic and online options they expect from organizations today, improving the technology to make it easier for our staff to help the public, and ensuring we have a safe, modern platform to support over $1 trillion in benefits payments each year. 

I have frozen hiring in non-frontline positions so that we can push all available resources to the offices that directly serve the public. I have increased the staffing in our field offices, national 800 number, processing centers, and State disability determination services (DDS) by nearly 3,000 people since 2019. I have increased IT investments to accelerate our modernization and increase online service options. 

We are working with the advocate community to help ensure that the most vulnerable populations can access our services. Our efforts include a robust communications campaign, in combination with a wide range of online resources, to provide information on service options for the beneficiary and individuals or organizations that help them. 

I also decided to pay employee awards so they know that we appreciate their hard work and dedication, especially during this difficult time. I have pushed the agency to find creative ways to maintain these efforts despite the significant cut to our budget request this year. 

We have explored all possibilities to eliminate our budget shortfall but we are unable to overcome it. I have no other option but to delay our planned hiring to operate within our appropriated resources. Further, we will not be able to compensate for fewer employees with additional overtime. We are operating with the lowest level of overtime in the last decade. These decisions have a lasting negative impact on the service we can provide to the American public. It will increase waits for service from our field offices and on our 800 number as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. The number of pending actions in our processing centers will grow from about 3.7 million actions pending at the end of FY 2020 to more than 4.2 million actions pending by the end of FY 2021. It will delay our plan to eliminate the backlog of cases in the DDS, which currently has about 20 percent more pending cases than prior to the pandemic, as we anticipate an increase in disability receipts into FY 2022. 

The pandemic has changed the way we do work at SSA in unprecedented ways. At the start of the pandemic, we transitioned to remote work, focused on critical service workloads through online and telephone options, and suspended some adverse actions to protect the public during an especially critical time. The pandemic required necessary operating adjustments to safely serve the public, reducing our ability to complete our workloads and contributing to increased backlogs and wait times in some priority service areas. These novel factors prevented us from achieving some of our goals in FY 2020 and put our goals for FY 2021 and future years at risk. FY 2021 is a critical year to shape the agency for post-pandemic success, but our resource constraints will delay our recovery. 

I appreciate President Biden’s support of our needs with his FY 2022 budget request of nearly $14.2 billion for us, which is $1.3 billion more than what we received this year to operate our agency. No one anticipated the duration of the pandemic and the ongoing challenges it presents. I hope you will consider these challenges and support his request to help us improve service. 

Sincerely, 

Andrew Saul 

Commissioner