“Follow the money,” we’re often told. That’s always good advice, be it tracing the Watergate break-in (the phrase was first popularized in the money “All The President’s Men”) or trying to understand what’s happening in Richmond.
It’s easy to get distracted by the headlines and think Richmond is all aflutter over mask mandates and vaccine requirements. Parts of it surely are, but guess what? Years from now, those debates will be history and some of the things the General Assembly is contemplating doing will still matter.
Many of those will involve, yes, money.
This is a budget year under Virginia’s two-year budget cycle. Lots of bills getting attention may or may not pass but one thing is certain: The legislature will pass a budget, and some of the things in that budget will shape, or reshape, Virginia for a long time to come.
The big headlines of the budget have come and gone. Among the most significant: Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam proposed $500 million for school construction and modernization, which would rank as the biggest state investment in what has been a local duty since the early 1950s, when the state spent $75 million on school construction. (Factor in inflation, and that $75 million then would be $868 million today, so, in context, Northam’s proposal would still fall short of what we did seven decades ago and certainly far short of the estimated $25 billion backlog.)
Governors, though, propose, and the legislature disposes. Almost every legislator – Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, is the only exception in our part of the state – has proposed amendments to that budget. Many are of what I would call a more general nature. For instance, Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, has a budget amendment to account for the fiscal impact of his proposed bill that would eliminate the state’s tax on groceries. Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, has an amendment to raise the starting salaries of deputies and regional jail officers. State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, has an amendment to increase funding for local and regional jails. There are lots of amendments like those, although this one might be the most colorful: Del. Matt Farris, R-Campbell County, proposes $12.8 million – half in each year of the budget – for the state to support Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for Kids. That’s a program where parents of preschool children can sign up and each month they receive a free age-appropriate book for their child. I would love to see the debate on this one: Who would dare argue against Dolly Parton?
I combed through the amendments with an eye for different sorts of amendments – those of a purely local nature but ones that would potentially have a big influence in reinventing the local economy. Here’s what I found.
The single biggest local ask comes from state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County. He proposes $22 million to “defease” – essentially, pay off – the state’s bonds on the now-closed Central Virginia Training Center in Amherst County. The center is a sprawling (350 acres) site with a tragic history (this is where the state once performed forced sterilizations on women) but potentially a promising future – under certain conditions. The site is strategically located, overlooking Lynchburg from the Amherst side of the James River. Its buildings, though, are full of asbestos, so no redevelopment can realistically happen until that’s taken care of. Newman would like to see the state debt paid off so the state can declare the property surplus and put it on the market. Depending on what happened to the property after that, it could potentially be transformative indeed. Otherwise, the property will remain, in the words of the CEO of the Lynchburg Business Alliance, “a blighted and substandard piece of property that will drain resources.” This is a big ask, but also a potentially big payoff. Here’s an idea, which I’ve heard circulated in Lynchburg from time to time: Sell the current Central Virginia Community College site to Liberty University and relocate the community college to this site. That would give both institutions more room to grow. The one obvious downside: If the Central Virginia Training Center site were sold into private hands, it would become taxable property and Amherst County would surely like that.
The Roanoke Valley has some big requests of its own. Four legislators – Republican Terry Austins of Botetourt County and Jason Ballard of Giles County on the House side, and Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke and Republicans Travis Hackworth of Tazewell County and David Suetterlein of Roanoke County on the Senate side – have amendments related to the initiative announced in December to build life sciences labs in both the Roanoke and New River valleys.
You might wonder why a senator from Tazewell is interested in something in Roanoke. Here’s why (other than the fact the economically is all connected): Under the new redistricting maps, Hackworth’s district in the next election will include Blacksburg and, given the economic ties between the New River and Roanoke valleys, that also means in this case he’s involved in something in Roanoke. Sometimes it’s a small world, indeed.
Austin, Ballard and Edwards propose $15.7 million for the project; Hackworth and Suetterlein break that down into three separate amendments, with the first asking for nearly $12.7 million to renovate an existing space in the Roanoke Valley for labs and startup space for biotech companies. Then they ask for just under $2.3 million for the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center’s part of the program and $745,000 “for Virginia Western Community College to support a biotech ecosystem in the Roanoke Valley by developing a life sciences incubator studio through the Regional Accelerator and Mentorship Program (RAMP) and creating curricula to develop talent and workforce related to life sciences.”
However these requests are configured, the total impact here would be significant – a major state investment in trying to grow the nascent life sciences sector in the Roanoke and New River valleys.
Imagine what would happen if both the Newman/Central Virginia Training Center amendment and these life sciences amendments got funded: The biggest metro areas in this part of Virginia would both get opportunities for some serious economic development. I’ll dare imagine a step further: What if there could be a Lynchburg component to this life sciences initiative? What if we could develop a life sciences corridor along U.S. 460 from Lynchburg to Roanoke to Blacksburg? I think the favored term there is “cluster.”
Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, has another big request but it’s of a different nature: $11 million in flood relief for Hurley, the small community in Buchanan County that was devastated by a flood in August but saw its requests for aid denied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Not once but twice! (Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel has written extensively about how people in Hurley are still living in temporary shelters long after the flood. I wrote an open letter to President Joe Biden making the case for FEMA aid. I’m sorry to report that Biden apparently isn’t a Cardinal reader because I thought I made a pretty persuasive case. Perhaps Gov. Glenn Youngkin can read that letter and just imagine his name where the president’s is?)
Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, asks for $10 million for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership “to develop a supply chain for the offshore wind industry in Virginia through direct business investment.” There’s nothing geographically specific in his amendment but it seems hard not to read this in light of the push from InvestSWVA to study whether Southwest Virginia can become a manufacturing center for wind energy. (I’ve written before about why this is a smart idea.) From time to time, I hear from some who are left-of-center about how the legislators in Southwest Virginia refuse to give up on coal. I don’t think that’s true at all, and I think this embrace of the wind industry proves that.
State Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County, obviously isn’t from Southwest Virginia but he might qualify as an honorary one. Last year, he sponsored the legislation that provided funds for a pilot program to use satellite-based internet – aka, Elon Musk’s Starlink system – to get broadband to students in the coalfields who otherwise wouldn’t have any. (Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote about how well this is working out.) Now McPike is back, asking to expand that program, to the tune of $14 million, which the amendment says would serve “a few thousand residential homes,” often with multiple students in each.
McPike, who at last fall’s Senate Finance Committee retreat in Roanoke declared it should be “all hands on deck” for rural Virginia, is sponsoring another budget amendment that would give $10 million to the Tobacco Commission’s “talent attraction program.” Yes, we’re written about that, too – Amy Trent had this story last fall. For those not inclined to click through, the gist of the program is to pay off student loans for people who move to the Tobacco Commission’s territory in Southwest and Southside and take certain hard-to-fill positions. Since 2019, the program has awarded about $4 million to 200 students. By that measure, this would more than double the size of that program, which another state senator – Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax County – called “the most innovative idea I’ve heard in 20 years.” The beauty of the program is that it checks off several boxes at once – it fills jobs that aren’t being filled and it brings in younger adults to aging parts of the state.
Another legislator from Northern Virginia has a budget amendment that would have a profound impact on this part of the state, should it get adopted: Del. David Reid, D-Loudon County, requests $6 billion – that’s “billion” with a “b” – for school construction. That’s a statewide request but would have a disproportionate impact (in a good way) on rural communities.
Not every big idea is an expensive one – at least not yet. Newman has a budget amendment for a mere $100,000 to commission a study into “the feasibility of establishing an inland port in Region 2000.” For those not in the know, Region 2000 is another name for Lynchburg and the surrounding counties of Amherst, Bedford, Campbell and Appomattox. An inland port is what Virginia already has in Front Royal, an initiative of Gerald Baliles when he was governor in the 1980s. Think of it as a giant shipping and distribution center. Virginia at the time wanted to lure business away from the port of Baltimore and instead direct it to Hampton Roads, so the idea is that trucks could unload there onto trains that went straight to the port. On the flip side, the idea is that trains could haul goods out of the port more quickly to an inland port, where they could then be unloaded and rerouted for further distribution – thus freeing up dock space and creating a quicker turnaround at the port. The Inland Port in Front Royal employs relatively few people but it’s led to a boom of warehouses and trucking operations around it. By some measure, there are close to 6,000 people around Front Royal whose jobs are tied to the Inland Port.
Other states have responded by building their own inland ports – South Carolina now has two, so does Georgia. Five years ago, Virginia’s secretary of transportation spoke to a business group in Roanoke and floated the idea of a second inland port, somewhere in Southwest Virginia. That momentarily excited some in the business community although nothing came of the idea. Newman’s push for an inland port in the Lynchburg region seems a natural outgrowth of the notion that Virginia, too, could use a second inland port.
There are lots of other economic-development related requests.
Edwards and Ballard are also both asking for $6.5 million to support a partnership between Virginia Tech and local industries “to create a future truck research and development cluster in Southwest Virginia.” (If you’re not from the region, this may sound odd but it’s not. Virginia Tech already has the nation’s second biggest transportation research institute. Torc Robotics in Blacksburg has been testing self-driving vehicles for years. After it was acquired by Daimler Trucks, the company began testing self-driving trucks in Southwest Virginia. Volvo has a massive truck factory in Pulaski and it’s also getting into self-driving vehicles.)
Del. William Wampler Jr., R-Washington County, asks for $3 million for general economic development purposes, with the money going to three planning commissions in Southwest Virginia: Lenowisco, Cumberland Plateau and Mount Rogers. Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County, proposes $1.3 million for recruiting and training workers for the big (nearly 2,500 jobs) medical glove factory coming to Wythe County. Or, in the technical language of the amendment, “a nitrile butadiene rubber production plant.” We don’t get to use the phrase nitrile butadiene nearly enough. State Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, has a companion measure on the Senate side. State Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, asks for $626,000 “to support community educational programs for women in sustainable agriculture and food systems in partnership with Sweet Briar College.” Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, requests $485,460 to fund an information technology academy at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston.
There are multiple requests that are simply “language” amendments, with no money attached – yet. Many are related to authorizing the first steps toward constructing college buildings. Edwards has an amendment that would authorize a new one for Radford University Carilion and an engineering building at Virginia Tech. (We had a story previously about a major gift to help fund this.) State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, has an amendment to authorize a technology building at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Kilgore goes ahead and asks for the money outright – nearly $59 million.
Museums and outdoor recreation projects are also popular.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, both ask for $10 million to help create a museum to Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a race at NASCAR’s highest level. Austin asks for $6 million to help move the Fincastle Museum to a new location; it’s being displaced by renovation of the courthouse. Edwards asks for $4 million – half each year of the budget – for the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke. He also has a separate bill that would make that museum a state agency. Del. John Avioli, R-Staunton, and Deeds both request $5 million for a Vietnam War and Foreign Conflicts museum in Nelson County.
As for outdoor projects, Deeds asks for $12.8 million to create a new state park in Highland County. (If this happens, it could easily become another dark sky park; Highland has some of the darkest skies in the east, but no state park from which visitors can view them.) Other outdoor requests are much smaller. Kilgore asks for $2 million “to accelerate the development of Clinch River State Park” by funding certain infrastructure (water and electric) and trail development. Pillion asks for $466,500 to help the Mendota Trail Conservancy convert abandoned railroad trestles into a walking and cycling trail. Austin requests $500,000 for preliminary engineering of a 25.9-mile bike and pedestrian route in Craig and Botetourt counties along the Craig Creek railbed.
And then there are other uniquely local requests. Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, requests $5 million to replace or repair the McMullen Bridge in Smyth County. Deeds wants $325,000 to help the town of Goshen buy an old school and convert it into a community center.
How many of these will get adopted – and funded at the levels requested? We’ll get our first indication late on Sunday, Feb. 20 – that’s when each chamber’s budget-writing committee is required to report out its version of the budget. By Feb. 24, each chamber will presumably pass its budget, then things will go silent – at least publicly – until a conference committee of selected legislators works out the differences between the House and Senate versions. That’s always challenging. This year, with the House under Republican management and the Senate under Democratic control, we might see more differences than usual.
We know what those great British philosophers, collectively known as the Rolling Stones, tell us: “You can’t always get what you want.” That’s undoubtedly true. Whether the rest of that line – “but sometimes you get what you need” – is true, we’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out.