When Amazon decided to scrap its planned HQ2 headquarters in New York City (a twin of the one coming to Arlington), a legislator from Northern Virginia proposed that Amazon put the other half in … the New River Valley. Amazon didn’t take Del. David Reid up on his offer, but his theory was that Virginia could host the entire operation, and maybe not every Amazon worker wanted to live in the D.C. suburbs. Hold that thought.
Over the years, we’ve seen the politics on proposed state funding of school construction change, but one thing has stayed constant: It’s usually been rural legislators (once Democrats, now Republicans) most enthusiastic about the idea and suburban legislators (once Republicans, now mostly Democrats) the most skeptical. For several years now, I’ve held up state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, as a school construction funding champion because he’s called for a statewide advisory referendum on whether to issue $4 billion in bonds. Then this year a Northern Virginia Democrat – the aforementioned Reid – upended those dynamics by calling for the state to set aside $6 billion for school construction. That didn’t happen, but maybe Reid’s call helped loosen up some legislators for the $1.2 billion that they eventually approved?
More recently, the chairman of the Virginia Commission on Manufacturing Development – one of those many obscure state commissions – has been touring Southwest and Southside Virginia, asking what we need to do to build out the Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania County to attract a major auto manufacturer, and heaping praise on efforts in Pulaski County and Wythe County to build a bigger manufacturing sector. That might not be so unusual except that said chairman comes from the part of Virginia least identified with manufacturing – and sometimes most identified with ignoring anything south of the Occoquan River. And yes, that chairman is the same Del. David Reid who proposed that Amazon locate in the New River Valley and that the state spend $6 billion on school construction.
Proper style dictates that we identify Reid as D-Loudoun County because he represents the Ashburn area – which is about as Northern Virginia as Northern Virginia can get – but at times he seems to unofficially be an additional delegate for the unique interests of rural Virginia.
There’s a reason for this: Reid was born in Lexington and grew up in Buena Vista, in a house with no indoor plumbing but an outhouse. As we say in these parts, this is a man who has not forgotten his raising. Reid was in Radford this week to speak at Boys State, which afforded an opportunity to sit down and talk with this seemingly unlikely champion for rural Virginia – unlikely in the sense that these aren’t the issues we expect a legislator from Loudoun County to be interested in. I doubt that Republican voters across Southwest and Southside would approve of much of Reid’s voting record, but on issues that don’t come with a partisan tint, they might be surprised at his advocacy for their part of the state – which, Reid is quick to point out, is his part of the state, too.
School construction is the issue that put Reid in my sights this session. His proposal for $6 billion in state spending trumped anything that any other legislator proposed – and while every locality needs to build or maintain schools, the ones that are hurt the most by rising construction costs are rural localities that have few resources to tax. Historically, the state has regarded school construction as a responsibility of local government. Some legislators – usually not from rural areas – have been adamant that this isn’t the state’s problem. This was the year that those who feel otherwise finally got their colleagues to budge. In his departing budget, then-Gov. Ralph Northam proposed $500 million in state spending on school construction. When Gov. Glenn Youngkin finally inked the state budget this week, it included $1.2 billion. Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, has been most identified with making that happen. Much of that is in the form of a matching grant program that supporters say can lead to about $3 billion worth of school construction once local governments put up their share of the money.
“We’ve made a really good step forward,” Reid said during an interview at Radford Coffee, especially considering how much opposition there was to any state role. But – and here comes the but – he thinks this wasn’t anywhere near enough. “We made a limited attempt,” he said. “Governor Northam’s $500 million was just inadequate.” And he’s not that impressed by the $1.2 billion, either, not the way much of it is structured. “You can apply for and get a 30% grant, so if the school costs $100 million to get $30 million your locality has to put up $70 million,” he said. His concern is that “some of the jurisdictions don’t have $70 million.” He fears much of this funding will be out of reach of some of the localities that need it more – again, generally rural localities. He is excited about “a significant paradigm shift” but still frets about “half measures and missed opportunities.”
Even Reid admits his proposed $6 billion wouldn’t be enough; a state study has tallied up $25 billion in construction needs. “We can’t do this in one bite,” he said. Reid doesn’t think much of Stanley’s proposed advisory referendum on $4 billion in bonds because it would be just that – advisory. “I believe we’re elected to lead – therefore an advisory referendum is not going to result in any actual money.” (Stanley’s theory is that if and when voters vote yes in an advisory referendum, that will create political pressure on legislators to act. Reid thinks they just ought to go ahead and act, so those are two different theories of politics.)
For those who wonder about the budget math, Reid is happy to sketch it out. “The plan I had would not have affected any of the tax rebates, any of the things Youngkin wanted to do,” he said. “From a business standpoint, when interest rates are so low and you have excess cash, that’s a good time to go into the bond market.” Between what the state wound up committing to, and what he thinks could have been raised on the bond market, “that gets you almost $4.4 billion.” After that, “you could have found the other $2 billion.” (The state budget that was passed was $165 billion over two years.) “If you can’t tell, I’ve thought about this a lot,” he said.
Anyway, that didn’t happen, and the opportunity may not come again. “We don’t know if the current level of budget surpluses is going to be sustainable for the future,” Reid said. “I think we should have grasped the opportunity.” But he also acknowledges that “sometimes it takes a time for ideas to percolate, for people to think about it. I think we have to give credit where credit is due. We went from people making statements that this is not a state responsibility to putting in 1.2 billion. That’s a big step forward.”
So will he try again? Maybe. “I think we’ll probably see in short order whether this will have the desired effect,” he said. Maybe rural localities will dig deep to raise the money and the $1.2 billion really will turn into $3 billion of construction. But if they don’t because they can’t … well, we’ll see. “We have a responsibility to help every part of the state,” Reid said. “Partly because I grew up in the area but because we have a responsibility to help everybody – that’s how I’m focused.”
That philosophy is also what led Reid to push the Amazon-to-New River idea (until Amazon said it just wouldn’t worry about the other half of HQ2). “Economic development is something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “If we can address the question of good-paying jobs in Virginia, especially areas like this, it addresses so many other issues – people have money for health care, they can afford to send a child to college, it brings money into the area.” On that score, not a single Republican in rural Virginia would disagree. The state can either push economic development in rural Virginia – or it can spend money on the problems that lack of a strong economy causes.
Over the past two years as chairman of the Manufacturing Development Commission, Reid has visited 11 different manufacturing operations around the state. He’s come away impressed by what he’s seen in the New River Valley – particularly the Access to Community College Education program that New River Community College has that offers free tuition for local students. “Both Pulaski and Wythe are doing some really good things from an economic development point of view,” he said. “We need to identify what it is you’re doing and bottle it and share that with other rural localities.”
On the other hand, he’s concerned that Southside might be in danger of missing a big opportunity through no fault of its own. The big buzz in economic development circles is that Virginia needs more prepared sites to compete with other states – that Southern Virginia Mega Site in Pittsylvania recently lost out to Georgia for an 8,100-job Hyundai electric battery plant, likely because the Georgia site was more graded. Virginia’s been spending $5 million a year on site preparation; Georgia’s been spending $66 million a year, North Carolina $80 million a year. This year’s budget appears to include $159 million – at least that’s the figure usually cited. Reid points out that it’s really just $109 million over two years – the remaining $50 million is contingent on revenues. “The first year is $54 million, of which $19 million is already spoken for, so it’s really just $35 million,” Reid said. By his accounting, that will still leave Virginia behind. “I advocated for them to front end the entire $150 million,” he said.
He sees the world this way: “We’re at the beginning stage of an emerging new market that we need to get in on the ground floor of or it’ll pass us by.” That emerging new market he sees is electric cars and batteries – that’s what the Hyundai plant was for. Every major car company is investing big into electric vehicles right now. The next few years is when the corporate decisions will be made that will shape the future geography of that industry. If Virginia could land one of those plants, “that will be a game changer for the entire Southside portion of the commonwealth,” Reid said. Again, no Republican would dispute that. He just hopes the Southern Virginia Mega Site will be ready before that market closes.
Reid said he was asked at Boys State if he ever gets covered in The Washington Post. He laughed and said no. He said the best way for a state legislator to get mentioned in The Post is to do something really spectacular – or really stupid. A legislator just doing his job doesn’t usually make The Post. But for what he’s doing, Reid does earn a mention in Cardinal News.