The most important thing this General Assembly will do won’t be passing a lot of bills.
It will be passing a budget.
Bills, even those signed into law, are transitory things that can someday be repealed if the politics of the day demand it.
Budgets, though, spend money. That money is transitory, too, but some of the things that money pays for are around for years, maybe even generations.
With that, I will delve today into the competing House and Senate budgets now moving through the General Assembly.
Technically, there are four different budgets in play at the moment. That’s because, in addition to the big two-year budget that will take effect July 1, legislators also routinely pass amendments to the current budget. A “caboose bill,” it’s affectionately called, because it’s tacked onto the end of the current spending plan. When times are bad, that caboose bill might involve cuts. When times are good, as they are now (at least revenue-wise), that caboose bill is a place to find even more money to spend. In the case of the $11.4 million that the House has appropriated for flood-ravaged Hurley, that money comes in the caboose bill – which is important for timing reasons, because that means, if approved by the Senate and signed into law, that money would be available now, rather than waiting until the new fiscal year.
My focus today is some of the specific local projects that weren’t in the original budget that then-Gov. Ralph Northam proposed in December, but which have been added by legislators in the form of budget amendments – as opposed to more systematic funding decisions such as school construction. You may recall I earlier devoted not one but two columns to some of those local requests. Now we can see which ones have survived the initial screening process and have actually made it into either the House or Senate budget. Just because it’s in one budget now doesn’t necessarily mean it will survive the conference committee that will work out the differences, so if you feel strongly about something, now would be a fine time to let your legislator know – although the legislators who matter most are those who will be the budget conferees who have yet to be named.
Here are 12 of the budget items that would be the most transformative for this part of the state:
- Life sciences labs in Roanoke. In terms of local projects, the big headline out of the budget so far is this: Both the House and Senate include $15.7 million to the city of Roanoke “for the renovation of an existing facility to create advanced laboratory, business incubation and an accelerator space for the development of new biotechnology companies across southwestern Virginia.” This is part of the big life sciences initiative that Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote about in December. Nothing is a done deal until the ink is dry and the check is cut, but this feels like something truly transformative. When I was with The Roanoke Times, I wrote that the Fralin Biomedical Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion was “The Roanoke Valley’s Amazon.” A better analogy might be this: This is the start of a Research Triangle in both the Roanoke and New River valleys. That project in North Carolina had many building blocks; so will this one, but this state investment will be one of the important ones as the region tries to build a life sciences cluster.
- The Central Virginia Training Center site in Amherst County. Another potentially transformative budget item is in the Senate spending plan but not the House version. State Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, had originally proposed $20 million to “defease” – essentially, pay off – the state bonds on the now-closed Central Virginia Training Center. This is a 350-acre site that overlooks Lynchburg, which is another way of saying it’s prime development land – once the state can clear the books and put it on the market, which is what Newman would like to see happen. That’s something the Lynchburg business community has been hoping would happen for years. The Senate budget increases Newman’s original ask to $25 million. With as much money as is sloshing around Richmond right now, this would seem the ideal time to make this happen. Even though this money isn’t in the House budget, I’d like to think that a Republican-controlled House would seize this opportunity. Depending on how that land gets used, there’s the prospect here of creating an industry cluster that runs from Lynchburg to Roanoke to the New River Valley.
- Truck research in the New River Valley. The House budget includes $5 million for Virginia Tech “to partner with local industries including Volvo Truck, Mack Truck, Torc Robotics (Daimler) and their suppliers to create a unique, world-class future truck research and development center in Southwest Virginia.” The language goes on to note that Virginia Tech is one of 60 finalists for up to $100 million in federal funding for research into autonomous and self-driving vehicles and this this funding ” will bolster the likelihood of winning this challenge, secure federal investment to Southwest Virginia, and attract high-tech companies to the region.” Here’s another industry cluster developing in the region: Automotive research and self-driving vehicles and drones. Megan Schnabel wrote this background story in December about Tech being a finalist.
- Wind energy supply chain. The House budget has $5 million to develop a program designed “to build a supply chain for the offshore wind industry.” The Senate budget has $2.5 million. Whatever the figure winds up being, this would seem to be good news for Southwest Virginia, where the InvestSWVA economic development group has commissioned a study to see what it would take for the region to grab a piece of the growing wind energy business. This amendment isn’t geographically specific – the offshore wind industry is obviously, umm, offshore, so Hampton Roads is going to have an advantage simply because of geography – but since Southwest Virginia is making a play for that niche, there’s some potential here.
- Inland ports. To relieve congestion at the ports – and get better turnaround time on cargo ships by making sure they’re unloaded quickly – coastal states have been moving some of those operations inland. Unload the stuff and truck it farther inland to a separate distribution center. Or, conversely, speed up loading by getting everything loaded into cargo containers inland rather than taking the time to do that at the port. Virginia set up an inland port at Front Royal in the 1980s; that’s now led to an explosion of warehouses and at least 6,000 jobs tied to the inland port. In recent years, there’s been talk that Virginia could use a second inland port – both South Carolina and Georgia have two, North Carolina has one in Charlotte. Newman had proposed money for a study of one in the Lynchburg area; the Senate version wound up including $200,000 and the proviso that it study the prospect of inland ports in both the Lynchburg area and the Bristol area. (Question: Should the study limit itself to those two locations or ask the broader question of where a second inland port should be? I understand the legislators involved may want to ask just about Lynchburg and Bristol . . . )
Creating a hub of wind energy manufacturing companies in Southwest Virginia, or building a second inland port, wherever it might wind up being, would both be transformative projects. So would any big business park, which brings us to:
6. Site development. This isn’t the kind of issue that makes headlines but does make a difference. Virginia has fallen behind other states when it comes to having large business sites ready to go. A state report last year found that: “In just the last few years, Virginia’s lack of prepared sites has contributed to the loss of projects representing more than 39,000 direct jobs, 75,000 additional jobs, $55 billion in capital investment, and more than $235 million per year in new state general fund revenue.” Here’s one reason why Virginia is behind: That same report said Virginia spends $5 million a year on site development. South Carolina spends $43 million, Ohio $50 million, Georgia $66 million. But they’re all dwarfed by North Carolina, which spends $80 million.
Between the caboose budget and the regular budget, the Senate proposes to spend $150 million over three years on site development – $100 million in “catch-up funding” out of the current one (something that was proposed by Northam), then $25 million a year for the two years of the biennium. The House version would spend $150 million in the current budget, then $14.4 million in the first year of the new budget, but nothing in the second year. That means the House provides more but less consistently over time, which is potentially a problem. More curiously, though, the House budget specifies that sites must be 200 acres or more, which is likely to rule out a lot of topographically-challenged Southwest Virginia — one of the parts of the state that more spending on site development is supposed to help most. A state report late last year on the economy of the coalfields documented how it’s hard in some places to put together a site of even 100 acres. Surely we can write a budget that takes that into account; otherwise, this help won’t be much help in some of the most economically-distressed parts of the state.
7. Talent pathways. Business groups have been pushing a variety of ways to increase the number of workers with specific skillsets — and also keep college graduates from moving out of state. (Virginia has a demographic problem there, that we don’t often recognize). The House budget includes $16 million to help fund paid internship programs; the Senate puts in $14.2 million – so something between those two figures will probably happen. The House also put in $11.5 million for grants to develop “talent pathways” on a regional basis; the Senate did not. As parts of the state that have long seen college graduates leave, this is something Southwest and Southside should have a particular interest in. Along those same lines, the House caboose budget includes $2.5 million for a study on workforce skills gaps in regional industry clusters, with the idea that the information gleaned from that would help inform the broader spending plan on “talent pathways.” The regular House budget includes another $9 million to work on talent pathways and retaining talent in general. All this may sound dreadfully boring, but it’s also dreadfully important — particularly in Southwest and Southside. That’s likely why this money is showing up in the House budget (where the majority Republicans have a big rural base) and not the Senate budget, where Democrats, with their base in urban Virginia, retain control.
Then there are some lower profile items that would have far-reaching ramifications:
8. Electric car charging stations. The Senate budget includes $10 million, with $5 million reserved for “historically economically disadvantaged communities.” That would cover a lot of rural counties in Southwest and Southside, although it wouldn’t necessarily direct the money there. The House budget includes $5 million specifically to “establish a network of chargers throughout rural Virginia.” This is surprising because the House budget – keep in mind that Republicans now control the House, and thus the budget process there – isn’t especially kind toward renewable energy. Outside of the budget, the House wanted to repeal the Clean Economy Act (the Senate doesn’t, so that won’t happen). Within the budget, the House plan eliminates the $30 million that Northam wanted to use to launch a solar loan and rebate program. It also eliminates $500,000 in Northam-proposed spending to add more positions for dealing with solar farm permits. So how does the House budget justify $5 million for electric car charging stations in rural Virginia? Tourism. The money is listed as “rural EV-tourism network” and puts the Virginia Tourism Authority in charge. The Republican-controlled House may not want to be seen pushing renewables as enthusiastically as their Democratic predecessors did, but apparently even rural Republicans like the idea of pocketing money from tourists and don’t want to cut themselves out of the growing market of electric vehicle drivers.
9. Aviation maintenance technology program in Danville. The House plan includes $1.8 million for Danville Community College to establish an aviation maintenance technology program. It also authorizes the school to establish a partnership with Averett University, which has a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Management with two concentrations — aviation business and flight operations. How might this help grow a new economic cluster in Danville?
10. Waste coal. The Senate budget includes $500,000 to identify the number and volume of waste coal piles in Southwest Virginia and “the evaluation of opportunities to use coal combustion residuals for construction purposes in public infrastructure projects.” A study from the Appalachian School of Law laid out the problems – and opportunities – with waste coal, often called “gob.” This would be $500,000 well spent.
11. Economic development in Southwest Virginia. The House budget includes $400,000 to help the Lenowisco Planning District Commission and the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission “identify, plan, and support economic development efforts” that “align with federal funding opportunities, including Assistance to Coal Communities funding.” The new federal infrastructure law includes a lot of money for abandoned mine projects, in particular, so it seems smart for the state to figure out how to make sure our coal counties benefit from that.
12. Wine-making. The House budget directs the state spend $250,000 out of the Virginia Wine Promotion Fund “for the purpose of breeding vinifera-style wine grapes adapted to the Mid-Atlantic US with a specified focus on combining vinifera fruit quality with downy mildew resistance, with an objective of commercializing the resulting variety within 10 to 15 years.” This might be of particular interest to Southside, where the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has been encouraging grape-growing as one alternative crop.
And then there are some parts of the budget known as “language only” amendments because they don’t involve a specific amount of money, but are used to direct certain actions of government. For instance, the House budget directs the Virginia Tourism Authority – when it’s not dealing with electric car charging stations – to provide “technical assistance” to Danville “on how best to plan for increased tourism in the Southside region due to infrastructure improvements at the Virginia International Raceway and the opening of a casino in the City.” There’s no mention of the other cities that are also getting casinos — Bristol, Norfolk and Portsmouth
So if all these go through – and, realistically, not all will; something’s got to give somewhere as the two chambers work out their differences – there will be lots of choices. Somehow could drive their electric car to Danville to gamble at the casino – and maybe someday sip on some of that vinfera-style wine. We’ll find out in a few weeks.