The General Assembly opens Wednesday, with the House of Delegates under new management and, as of Saturday, a new chief executive sitting upstairs in the state Capitol.
Much of the focus over the next two months will be on the reconfigured political dynamics in Richmond, with a new Republican governor and a new Republican majority in the House – all the things they will try to do and then try to get through the narrow Democratic majority that remains in the state Senate. The headline item there will be Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s desire to cut taxes, particularly the state’s tax on groceries. Repealing that regressive tax was once a Democratic issue that the party somehow ceded to Republicans, with Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, as the sponsor.
That’s a statewide issue, but there are lots of others that have a unique impact on Southwest and Southside. Here are 10 of them.
- The legalization of marijuana. This is also very much a statewide issue, although how it’s done could have regional impacts. Democrats set this in motion last year when they controlled the full apparatus of state government but left the job undone, saying they’d come back this year to finish the work. Oops. Legalization itself does not appear to be in jeopardy – the wacky weed has already been legalized for personal consumption; what remains is to set up a retail market. There are a fair number of Republicans who are quite fine with legalization, but they are Republicans of a libertarian mindset, which puts them at odds with Democrats, who wanted to use legalization to make amends for years of disproportionate policing of marijuana laws. Should the free market decide the new marketplace or should the state set up rules and goals for social equity? That’s part of the essential conflict. There are also questions about when Virginia’s retail market should begin; there’s a lot of sentiment on both sides for advancing that to 2023 instead of 2024. The possible regional impact comes with how marijuana will be grown. Will there be rules that encourage it to be grown indoors (which would benefit the urban crescent) or rules that encourage it to be grown outdoors (which would benefit rural areas)? In states that have legalized marijuana – the preferred term is cannabis, by the way – most of it seems to be grown indoors, where it’s easier to grow year-round and secure the crop against pests and thieves. So rural Virginia should not set expectations for a new cash crop that are too high (see what we did there?)
- School construction. There finally seems to be a growing consensus that the state needs to step in and help less affluent communities – generally rural ones but also many central cities – with the growing cost of school construction and modernization. In his final budget, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam proposed $500 million for school construction. That falls far short of the $4 billion bond issue that state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has been pushing, or the $18 billion in school construction needs that were identified in the final days of the last Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, in 2013, a figure some now believe is really as high as $25 million. It is, though, at least a start. We don’t know Youngkin’s views on the subject, although, given his political indebtedness to rural Virginia, he’d be well-advised to take Northam’s $500 million and try to figure out ways to increase that.
- Talent attraction. When the Senate Finance Committee – still very much under Democratic control – held its retreat in Roanoke in November, much of the conversation dealt with ways to help rural Virginia deal with its economic challenges. Some of those economic challenges are also demographic challenges – not enough young adults. One idea that elicited much excitement was the Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction Program, whereby the commission pays the student debt of recent graduates who move to the commission’s territory and fill certain in-demand jobs. This checks off several boxes at once – it helps those communities fill jobs that are hard to fill and also brings in a younger demographic. The Senate Finance Committee was fascinated by this program – state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, called it “the most innovative idea I’ve heard in 20 years.” There was talk then about providing the funds to expand this program and perhaps extend it elsewhere. Will that happen? We’ll see.
- Tobacco Commission. There was also talk at the same Senate Finance retreat about expanding the commission’s footprint into non-tobacco-growing areas. This produced immediate pushback, and not just from yours truly. The rationale for expanding the commission’s footprint: There are lots of localities not just in economic distress but in what the state considers “double distress” that aren’t covered by the Tobacco Commission. This would be a way to help them. The argument against: The Tobacco Commission was set up in 1999 with funds from the master settlement with tobacco companies with the explicit mission of building a new economy in tobacco country. To expand the footprint is to dilute those funds and thereby break faith with the communities the commission is intended to serve. The solution would be to set up a separate entity to serve those double-distress localities that aren’t in the Tobacco Commission’s footprint.
- Site development. This is a statewide issue with unique regional impacts. The Senate Finance Committee heard in November how Virginia is getting left behind by other states when it comes to having ready-to-go business sites. North Carolina spends $80 million a year on site development, Georgia $66 million, Ohio $50 million, South Carolina $43 million. Virginia just $5 million.This may not matter much in Northern Virginia, where wealth is produced in cubicles, but does matter a great deal in rural Virginia. A recent report found Southwest Virginia has just three ready-to-go sites of 100 acres or more. In his outgoing budget, Northam has proposed $150 for development, including $100 million for so-called “megasites” such as the Southern Virginia Megasite in Pittsylvania County. That’s why Northam went to Danville to make that announcement. Governors propose, legislatures dispose, so the question with this is the same as it is for everything else in Northam’s budget: How much of that will still be in it when the General Assembly finally passes it and Youngkin signs off on it?
- Mining in Southside. Southside may look uneventful on the surface – the rolling hills of the southern piedmont – but underneath, there are lots of interesting things going on geologically. (Randy Walker told us about just how interesting here.) We already know there’s uranium, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the state’s moratorium on mining that. We also know there’s gold, and the state last year commissioned a study on that, which has now gotten underway. Last fall, a Canadian company started prospecting in Pittsylvania County for copper, lead and zinc. That prompted a Fauquier County-based environmental group – the Piedmont Environmental Council – to sound an alarm and enlist Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, to introduce a bill to “pause” state permitting for mining there. Will the General Assembly go along? It’s notable that this effort wasn’t led by the local legislators. This skepticism of mineral mining in Southside would have likely faced better odds had Democrats retained control of the House because they would likely be more swayed by environmental concerns than the prospect of jobs in rural Virginia.
- The Virginia Museum of Transportation. The nonprofit museum in Roanoke would like to be transformed into an official state agency. The upside for the museum: This would put the museum on a more secure economic footing. The argument for making the museum a state agency: Virginia already recognizes the museum as the state’s official transportation museum, and this would help diversify the state’s cultural offerings in a geographical way. The question mark: Are Republicans going to be keen on expanding the size of state government? Or will this be an easy way for Youngkin to pay part of his political debt to this part of the state? (If so, it will be an indirect payment, since the city of Roanoke still voted quite Democratic.)
- Catawba Hospital. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has sponsored a bill that would have the state study whether to transform the Roanoke County mental hospital into a substance-abuse treatment facility. This is important on two levels. The first is how the state wrestles to deal with substance abuse problems. The second is that Catawba has often been on the state’s chopping block. Two different governors – Republican Jim Gilmore in 2001 and Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2016 – tried to close it. Both obviously failed (then-Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, was instrumental the last time around), and by 2019 the state was expanding Catawba. Still, life is uncertain and the facility is old, so Rasoul’s move is both sound policy and clever politics to help ensure that Catawba remains. Of note: Although it’s in Roanoke County, it’s the biggest employer for Craig County residents.
- Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center. The Dominion Energy plant in Wise County has been controversial from the beginning (it opened in 2012) because it burns coal, but that’s almost the least interesting thing about the facility. It also burns waste coal, known as gob coal. Local legislators see the plant as a big jobs generator and also a way to clean up the waste coal that is piled up around coal country and often contaminates local waterways. While the Clean Economy Act (passed by a Democratic General Assembly in 2020) requires most coal-fired plants to close by 2024, Southwest legislators won an exemption to keep Virginia City open until 2045. That said, environmentalists still want to see the plant close early. State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, has a bill that would complicate that in two ways. First, it declares gob coal to be a renewable energy – some may consider that the equivalent of declaring a square to be a circle – and second, it waives that 2045 closure date to allow Virginia City to continue beyond that. This is kind of a big deal. My advice: It would help if those who oppose Hackworth’s bill had some proposal for how they’d replace all these jobs. Otherwise, they come off looking like they care about the planet, just not this particular corner of it. That’s not the best look.
- Flood relief for Hurley. The small community in Buchanan County was hit with a devastating flood in August. Months later, people are still living in trailers, and, in the classic case of insult and injury, the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down the state’s request for aid for individual homeowners. (Megan Schnabel had this report from the scene here.) In response, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, has set his sights on the nearly $228 million that the state has collected in the first (and, if Youngkin has his way, only) year of participation in a regional cap-and-trade program intended to put a price on carbon emissions. Some of that money is supposed to go toward flood relief anyway, although the authors had coastal flooding from rising sea waters in mind. Morefield’s bill would create a flood relief fund that Hurley could tap into. This poses both practical and moral questions. The practical: Is this how the state should use those funds? The moral: And, if not, then what is the state’s responsibility toward Hurley? Or, put another way, are we, or are we not, a commonwealth?