Just over one month before the General Assembly convenes in Richmond for the 2019 session beginning on January 9, a time when state lawmakers are pre-filing bills and outlining their legislative priorities, some of the top subjects that have come forth from the Southwest Virginia Republican delegation have surfaced. The five broader subjects and areas of legislative action include providing funding for public education, reforming the state’s tax code, upgrading Interstate-81, combating the opioid crisis statewide, and legislation to proliferate and regulate sports betting and casino-style gaming.
At a Monday meeting in Abingdon, Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City) said his priority concern will be the state budget.
“I think that’s going to be the overriding concern this year as we move forward through this session,” he said, according to the Bristol Herald-Courier. “We thought we were doing real well until a miscalculation of about $400 million occurred on some Medicaid/Medicare dollars as it relates to nursing homes.”
Medicaid expansion passed through the General Assembly after the Democratic “Blue Wave” of 2017, and while the expansion legislation was backed heavily by the administration of Governor Ralph Northam (D), it did garner a few Republican votes at the delayed end of the first special session of 2018. The House GOP Caucus, meanwhile, was sure to tack on as many work requirements and taxpayer dollar-saving guidelines to the bill before it was signed by the governor.
However, massive cost overruns have hit the Commonwealth after a less than stellar, overly optimistic forecasting by state finance officials. Members of the Northam Administration claim that these fiscal overruns have nothing to do with the expansion of the healthcare program under the Obama-era federal Affordable Care Act, which has led the state to extend coverage to over 300,000 low-income Virginians. They explained that it will help save the state money, but that will continue, of course, until the federal government rescinds the plan, leaving Virginia to pick up the bill somewhere down the road.
Delegate Todd Pillion (R-Abingdon) told the crowd of 250-strong at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center that expanding Interstate-81 is a top legislative priority for him. He said the 60-year-old interstate was not built for the current traffic it experiences and the General Assembly is already considering how to fund expansion of the Shenandoah Valley’s transportation artery.
Led by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), a study concluded just weeks ago that examined the I-81 corridor originally identified 105 “immediate” projects with an estimated price tag of $4.25 billion. However, due to funding challenges, the state is focusing on just 72, with approximately two dozen projects recommended for VDOT’s Staunton District at an estimated cost of around $900 million. The projects throughout the 325-mile I-81 Virginia corridor include widening the interstate to three lanes, shoulder widening, extending acceleration and deceleration lanes at various locations, among other improvements aimed at helping truck drivers and local citizens.
The General Assembly will ultimately decide the funding options for the massive project, but many are touting a new regional fuel tax to pay for upgrades rather than widely-unpopular tolls. Northam’s Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue has said the annual revenue from tolling on the truck-heavy corridor is estimated around $135 million. Moreover, a regional fuels tax increase of 2.1 percent could generate $60 million a year, and a 0.7 percent increase in retail sales and use taxes would generate $105 million a year.
Delegate Israel O’Quinn (R-Bristol) said there will be a lot of talk about tax reform and how Virginia, a federally-conforming tax code state, can readjust its taxes to essentially provide for a middle class tax cut. However, the situation could very well becoming a tax increase with 49 Democrats in the House and 2019 being an election year.
Following extraordinary tax collections this year, more than double the projected rate, rather than ensure fair tax cuts for all citizens in the state, Governor Northam has proposed to make the earned income tax credit (EITC) refundable. Although Northam defines this as a “tax cut for the poor,” it is tantamount to $240 million tax increase on those in the working and middle class.
“With the federal deduction almost doubling and the Virginia deduction being at $6,000 for the standard deduction, there is going to be a lot of people taking that Federal Standard Deduction and not being able to itemize things on the state level that they used to like mortgages, healthcare etc. – it would really disadvantage them,” Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said in August.
Pertaining to Southwest Virginia, O’Quinn and area State Senator Bill Carrico (R-Lee) announced they will carry legislation that would let Bristol residents decide, using a referendum, whether they want the $150 million Bristol Resort and Casino. Developers want to open a casino in the former Bristol Mall, but first Virginia law would have to be changed to allow for casino gambling.
O’Quinn said the project is “going to be one of probably two dozen different gaming bills that you’re going to see. You’ve got casinos, you’ve got sports betting, you have all these things all of the sudden. It’s like the dam has broken and all of the sudden issues that haven’t been talked about in several years are certainly going to get a hearing this year.”
As the state progresses from its highly conservative outlook on gambling, teamed with the federal recognition of Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe, casino-style betting and gaming has become a hot topic recently with both Republicans and Democrats. Next year’s legislative session will see the introduction of legislation to create a pathway for slot machines, the legalization of sports betting, casino gambling, and the expansion of the Old Dominion tradition of horse racing in the near future.
Legislators will also face the issue of how to provide funding for K-12 schools not only in Southwest Virginia, but elsewhere in the Commonwealth in rural and urban areas where educational infrastructure is in great need for modernization. The proceeds from casino-style gaming, according to some in the General Assembly, could be used for providing upgrades in schools, especially as the Select Committee On School Safety has authorized recommendations for promoting safety in Virginia schools.
“If we can’t get education right, I don’t know how we can expect to get much else right,” O’Quinn said. “When you’re turning out kids who spent 13 years in a school system and we fail at that our chances of success drop exponentially.”
State Senator Ben Chafin (R-Wise) said students in the region have some of the highest test scores in the state, but the area does not do a good enough job promoting itself.
“We ought to be putting together a message and letting people know, ‘you know what, we’re raising smart kids here.’ We got a good education system here and we’re open for business,” he said. “That’s what we ought to be telling people. I’m going to be pushing that.”
Virginia’s lack of school funding was overshadowed by Medicaid in the 2018 session. Another Southwest Virginia legislator, State Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin), was named chairman of the State Senate Subcommittee on School Facility Modernization, which toured the Commonwealth’s school divisions to examine the state of infrastructure. The group made its final visit to the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) division in late October, with Stanley referencing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 63-year-old landmark Brown II case in his decision to form legislation next session to direct Virginia to provide schools that are “fully modernized or maintained as seemingly required” by the U.S. Constitution.
The other large topic that the Southwest Virginia Republican delegation is set to tackle is what the state can do to further combat the opioid crisis crippling the region. Pillion said the state needs to address the underlying issues that lead to addiction, adding that economic recovery must be factored in to helping people battling addictions.
“The best way to get an addict to recover is to give them a job,” he said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Furthermore, the delegate explained that Virginia needs to “properly” fund addiction recovery services and work on legislation that would help addicts who have “barrier crimes” on their record which prevent recovered addicts from obtaining gainful employment. He said he will work on legislation that would open up the job market to those who committed a crime and paid their debt to society.
As the General Assembly has just 30 days of official work in Richmond scheduled so far this year, which has traditionally been extended to 45 calendar days, it will likely be a jumping point for many campaign issues as all 140 delegates and state senators are up for re-election in November.