Gazette-Journal reporters Sherry Hamilton and Quinton Sheppard sat down with Del. Keith Hodges (R-Urbanna) and state Sens. Tommy Norment (R-James City County) and Lynwood Lewis (D-Accomac) on Monday to find out what the local legislators are working on this year.
Del. Keith Hodges
“We’ve identified 23 different programs dealing with protecting the bay, which we want to do,” Hodges said. “But at the same time, we have to find ways to overcome our economic development challenges and create jobs and opportunities.”
Hodges said over 70 percent of workers in his district, which includes Gloucester and Mathews, travel out of the district to their jobs, and added that this area has some of the lowest wages in the state.
House Bill 2055, of which Hodges is the chief patron, passed the House of Delegates and is now in a Senate committee, would establish a Rural Coastal Virginia Community Enhancement Authority. This group, consisting of the 12 counties within the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and Accomack-Northampton planning districts, would be empowered to seek out various sources of funding, using that money to award grants to encourage job growth.
The Authority, Hodges said, would help the region in obtaining job training, employment-related education, leadership and civic development and business development, especially entrepreneurship for the coastal region. It would also provide assistance to distressed and underdeveloped counties in the coastal region and would fund demonstration projects, and conduct research, evaluations and assessments of the region’s assets and needs.
“It would basically be a dedicated group for economic development, including areas similar to us, and asks the question, ‘How can we work together for economic development in a different way?’”
Hodges said he is also addressing stormwater regulations, which he said can cause “astronomical” costs for businesses starting in the region. “These regulations are great for protecting the bay, but obstruct businesses from coming here,” he said. Even those businesses with a small environmental footprint often have to pay upwards of $100,000 in added stormwater management costs alone. (cont. below)
Sen. Tommy Norment
With only two weeks left in the 2017 legislative session, he said, “the bills continue to come through the system.” He said he has to go over the fiscal impact of the bills and that he’s “trying to stay current, but there are constant adjustments.”
The House and Senate are not that economically different this year, said Norment. For instance, in education, the General Assembly is trying to deal with the impact of lost revenues on small localities such as Mathews because of the loss of students in grades K-12.
“If you lose a few students and take away that money, it has a disproportionate financial impact,” he said. He explained that a small school system that loses two students per grade might lose funding for a teacher, but with no single grade impacted, the locality wouldn’t be able to reduce its teaching staff.
“We’re trying to make up that money,” he said.
Health and human resources are a significant part of this year’s budget, said Norment, with some of the money in the governor’s budget reallocated to community services boards, social services, and mental and behavioral health.
Counties such as Gloucester, Mathews and Middlesex have a backup in the jail of inmates with mental health issues, said Norment, and while that might not be where they belong, there’s no place to put them. Some of the problem is a reduction in bed space at state mental hospitals, he said. Because there’s no money for private hospitals, people with mental health issues are often held in jails. He said there needs to be a current state facility where inmates with mental health issues could be sent. (cont. below)
Sen. Lynwood Lewis
Lewis said his Senate Bill 1203 would provide more tools for localities that want to encourage water-dependent commercial, industrial or government activities. Such activities could include recreational fishing, tourism, aquaculture, boat and ship building, and seafood processing and sales.
Senate Bill 1205 would provide a separate level of personal property taxes for commercial fishing vessels that could only be lower than the existing taxes, said Lewis.
Four planning district commissions worked with him to come up with “a whole suite of suggestions” for local, state and federal governments, he said.
While both of the bills have met with success so far, he said, a study he proposed that would examine the long-term economic viability of working waterfronts was going to be too expensive for this year, so he withdrew the proposal. However, he intends to bring it back again next year, and he hopes for the eventual success of all three measures.
A constitutional amendment that Lewis proposed to address redistricting issues was rolled in with another senator’s proposal and sent to the House of Delegates, he said, but he’s not optimistic it will pass. The Senate typically approves redistricting bills and sends them to the House, he said, but they don’t make it to the floor there.
The General Assembly often finds itself unable to deal effectively with “the big things,” said Lewis, and that can be attributed to legislators’ inability to be flexible because of the partisan nature of the districts they represent.
He said that OneVirginia2021, an organization pushing for nonpartisan redistricting, “is doing a good job of building a fire” and that, if a bill gets to the floor of the House, “people will be hard-pressed to vote against it.”
Lewis said a ruling is expected from the Supreme Court as early as June on racial redistricting in Virginia. He said that redistricting for racial reasons “won’t be held in favor.” But beyond that, he said, courts across the country are also determining that there’s “a line that can’t be crossed” for redistricting for partisan political purposes. He said that some complex formulas are used to determine how many votes are wasted due to partisan redistricting, and that Virginia is “one of the worst.” His own district, he said, was redrawn to include Mathews when Democrats held the General Assembly. (cont. below)