Lawmakers Prep For Uncertainty
‘Cliff’ Leaves State In Flux
Four area legislators discussed the coming General Assembly session during the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce’s annual prelegislative breakfast Monday. The Shenandoah Valley Technology Council and James Madison University’s Department of Research and Public Policy co-sponsored the event.
More than 100 people attended the breakfast at the JMU Festival Conference and Student Center.
Because of the “fiscal cliff” — more than $100 billion in automatic cuts facing Congress at the end of the year, unless members find a resolution — legislators are uncertain of what’s in store for the state heading into the General Assembly session that starts Jan. 9.
Virginia could lose as many as 200,000 jobs within the defense industry, said Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave.
“We don’t know how to plan for that,” he said of job losses. “Unfortunately, at this point it’s anybody’s guess.”
Costs associated with the federal health care reform and whether the state should set up an exchange are other question marks. People not covered by their employers could use the exchange to shop for insurance, or else they could use a federal exchange to find coverage, if the state declines to set up its own program.
A state-run exchange gives Virginia more control, yet also could be more costly.
“Nobody has a good idea as to the long-term or even the short-term implications,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said of the health care overhaul.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, also participated in Monday’s event.
Hanger, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, is more optimistic about the budget outlook than his counterparts, saying the $109 billion in federal cuts is a “small fraction” of the nation’s deficit.
“If going over the cliff is the only way to [solve] it, let it happen,” he said. “Then I think we can rearrange the deck [and look at tax policy].”
The next budget step for the General Assembly will be to review Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed amendments to the biennial spending plan. He will present those amendments next week.
Other Session Plans
While the budget will dominate the 30-day session, Valley lawmakers are ready to tackle other issues in Richmond.
Obenshain said he will seek to expand access to charter schools, offering more educational choice for parents.
“Virginia is about in last place in developing them,” he said of charter schools.
According to the Center for Education Reform, a national group that promotes choice and accountability in schools, Virginia has the second-weakest charter school law among the 42 states with regulations.
Obenshain also wants to protect Virginia’s right-to-work law to ensure that public projects are not solely bid out to union groups.
Wilt’s plans for 2013 include a bill that addresses abuse of government benefits. He will seek to prohibit the purchase of certain items, such as alcohol and cigarettes.
And although he didn’t mention it Monday, Wilt is co-sponsor of a bill to make texting while driving a primary offense. Current law counts it as a secondary offense, meaning drivers must be observed violating a primary offense, such as speeding, to be charged with texting while driving.
Landes wants to make public universities’ boards of visitors more transparent. One component of his legislation would be to force colleges to pay for training for such topics as responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.
The measure is in response to the drama at the University of Virginia this summer when President Teresa Sullivan was ousted by U.Va.’s board of visitors, then reinstated following the public outcry that ensued.
To address budget concerns, Landes also wants to eliminate certain tax credits.
Hanger, meanwhile, will keep an eye on increasing transportation funding as the state tries to account for more efficient vehicles. Virginia’s gas tax — 17.5 cents per gallon — has not changed since 1986, meaning the state has received less revenue because modern vehicles operate on less fuel.
“Everyone is becoming aware [that] we have to do something,” Hanger said.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org