Now for the details.
Well, some of them anyway.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s inaugural address on Saturday was devoid of specifics, but that’s usually the way with inaugural addresses. They are supposed to set the tone – in his case, sunny and conservative, which is a distinct and welcome contrast to how conservatism gets presented by a lot of conservatives on the national scene.
The new governor’s traditional address to the General Assembly on Monday, though, is where we get into the details of policy, or at least the headlines about those details.
Youngkin reiterated his opposition to mask mandates and vaccine mandates but made what seemed to me a pretty strong and heartfelt call for people to get vaccinated. I say again: Republicans need more Republicans like Youngkin. We can have our arguments about whether the government should be mandating vaccines, but we shouldn’t have any arguments over their efficacy (although I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why the government shouldn’t mandate vaccines against COVID-19 when it mandates 11 different immunizations for kids before they can enter school).
Youngkin also reiterated his call for charter schools, backed by a call to spend $150 million to start 20 of them. From where I sit in the western part of Virginia, this seems a pretty distant issue. Few of them are likely to be here, and those that do show up here are likely to be out of reach for most students due to geography. There are philosophical issues aplenty here, but this feels like somebody else’s problem that doesn’t really affect us out here very much.
Here is what I did notice, though, that does matter to us out here.
First, Youngkin declared: “I support a significant investment in megasites. To make sure we don’t lose the next advanced battery manufacturing plant after seeing several go to Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.”
This is hardly a headline item the way COVID is or charter schools are, but it’s also underrated. This matters for a lot of reasons.
First, those advanced battery plants Youngkin mentioned are for electric vehicles. Here’s one of the great ironies of the energy transition we’re seeing: Many of the economic benefits from renewable energy pushed by Democrats will wind up in Republican-voting states. Georgia may not be completely Republican-voting these days (it went Democratic in 2020), but the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, sounded almost like a latte-sipping treehugger when he got to announce that a $5 billion electric truck plant would be built in his state. He declared that Georgia is “now a world leader in electric vehicles and electric mobility.” A lot of the debate over energy is political – one side is for it so the other side must be against it – but here we see Republican governors recognizing the economic potential of moving past fossil fuels.
Second, we have such a “megasite” – the 3,528-acre Southern Virginia Megasite in Pittsylvania County. These big industrial sites matter because this is one place where Virginia has fallen behind other states, which does make it harder for the state to land a large-scale manufacturing operation. It’s just not so-called “megasites,” either, it’s site development in general. At last November’s Senate Finance Committee retreat in Roanoke, then-Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball lamented that “the state that keeps me up at night is North Carolina and they’ve spent a lot more on sites than we have. Critically for Southwest Virginia, you’ve got to have sites. That’s what makes this go.” A later report that focused strictly on the coal counties reiterated the problem: “The lack of site preparedness across Virginia is accelerating the economic divide between Northern Virginia and the smaller metros and rural regions of the Commonwealth, such as Southwest Virginia.” Specifically, that report found that the coal counties had just three sites with more than 100 acres. Now, we can’t expect mountainous Southwest Virginia to have a 3,528-acre site like Pittsylvania in the southern piedmont does, but the lack of prepared sites is a real problem when it comes to landing some companies – so Youngkin’s attention to such things really is a big deal for rural economic development.
Here’s what we don’t know, though: How much is “a significant investment?” In the budget he put together before he left office, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed $150 million for site development, with $100 million of that for megasites. In one of his final acts as governor, Northam announced that his administration had just awarded $7 million to 11 different sites around the state – eight of them in Southwest and Southside. So here’s the question: Will Youngkin up that ante? Or is he just going to claim credit for what’s happening anyway? I’d like to believe the former but, after observing politicians for a long time, I know that the latter is always possible.
Youngkin sort of did that when he talked about rural broadband: “Every governor for the last decade has stood in this chamber and told you that rural broadband was a priority. This time we’re going to get it done.” Youngkin probably will get to be the governor who gets to declare victory in the quest for universal broadband, but that may be akin to Richard Nixon getting to be the president who saw men land on the moon while John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were the ones who set the Apollo program in motion and kept it going. Northam announced in October that Virginia should achieve universal broadband by 2024, and those final dollars are mostly due to the federal infrastructure bill that Republicans generally opposed but which President Joe Biden signed into law. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those people without rural broadband. My only internet is generated from a small hotspot that is strong enough to let me send emails but not strong enough to upload some photos to this website; for that, I have to go sit outside the Fincastle library and mooch off the Wi-Fi there.) Still, I’m not going to begrudge Youngkin taking a victory lap on that one if he wants to. The day we have universal broadband will be a glorious day.
We in this part of the state should also appreciate Youngkin’s words about us: “I want our rural Virginians to know we’re spreading prosperity far and wide. And rural Virginia won’t be left behind.”
Great! We just don’t know any specifics yet so we don’t know whether this is just rhetoric. (Of course, it’s not rhetoric we heard from the two Democrats from Northern Virginia who delivered a pretty uninspiring Democratic response – former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and state Sen. John Bell – but I digress.) I’ll hold my applause there until I actually see something.
Here, though, are the words that I remember most, because they were the most unexpected:
Just after Youngkin talked up megasites and before he professed his commitment not to leave rural Virginia behind, he dropped this bombshell: “And while we’re at it, let’s broaden the baseball stadium authority to include football. And perhaps we’ll get one of those, too.”
OK, time out, people. Let’s run some slow-motion instant replay to look at what just happened here. The baseball stadium authority Youngkin mentioned is an unused artifact in state law. It was created in the 1990s when there was talk of getting a Major League Baseball team, either through expansion or relocation, in Northern Virginia. That obviously didn’t happen. The Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals and they play in the District of Columbia.
Now, though, the Washington Football Team, which currently plays in Landover, Maryland, wants a new stadium and owner Daniel Snyder has made it clear he’d sure love that new stadium to be in Northern Virginia. Some legislators have suggested that the baseball stadium authority law could be amended to include a football stadium.
So, let me get this straight: Youngkin says rural Virginia won’t be forgotten yet makes no mention of how to pay for school construction and modernization, but effectively endorses Virginia taking some unspecified role in getting Snyder to build a football stadium in Northern Virginia? Frankly, this surprises me on several levels. Youngkin is a conservative, which means he should be skeptical of how tax dollars are spent. He’s also a businessman who is said to believe strongly in metrics, and I have yet to see any metrics that say helping fund a football stadium is a good deal for Virginia taxpayers. Maybe there’s some magic solution where Virginia doesn’t have to spend a penny and we still get the stadium built on our side of the Potomac. If Youngkin can wrangle that, then he’s a first-class negotiator. And, to be sure, there are potential benefits of having a stadium and the related “football city” that Snyder envisions: Lots of tax dollars might get generated there. Maybe in theory we in rural Virginia, particularly Southwest and Southside, should go ahead and cheer that. Rural school systems are mostly subsidized by the state, so the more money the state collects in revenues, the greater the chance that some of those might wind up here.
However, the idea that any of Virginia’s tax dollars should go to underwrite a football stadium seems politically offensive in this part of the state. I pointed out in a column in December that Southwest and Southside Virginia don’t hold much allegiance to the Washington Football Team. That’s not me as a fan talking, that’s the free market talking. More radio stations in this part of the state broadcast the Carolina Panthers than the Washington team. As Alvin France of Lebanon tweeted on Monday: “I just don’t care in Russell County about a team in Northern Virginia! Easier to get to Charlotte. No need to prop up the affluent DC suburbs.”
Youngkin and others may see some prestige in the Washington team playing in Virginia, but that prestige seems small to the point of being negligible. It’s not as if there’s no team playing in the Washington metro area. There is a team already. Does it really matter where in that metro area it plays? I can understand Youngkin seeing the potential for some tax revenue for the general fund, but what’s in it for the rural Virginia he professes not to leave behind? Are we supposed to wait around with our hands out while we wait for that football city to generate revenue?
If Snyder – who is said by Forbes magazine to be worth more than $4 billion – has trouble finding enough money to build a stadium (the one just built for the Las Vegas Raiders cost $1.9 billion), then why can’t he do what every small business owner has to do when he or she wants to expand: visit the local bank and take out a loan? We have schools that are, literally, falling apart but we’re supposed to help some billionaire build a gleaming new sports arena in the most affluent part of the state, nay, potentially the most affluent part of the country? I sure hope Youngkin knows what he’s doing here, because politically, he may have just thrown an interception in the part of the state that loves him most.
There is, of course, one way to make any state involvement in financing a football stadium politically palatable in this part of Virginia: Give us a cut of the action. Dedicate a certain percentage of the revenues – and it better be a darned big percentage – to Southwest and Southside Virginia. Otherwise, I ask again: Why should we care where this team plays?