Follow the money, they say.
Before we can do that, we should first follow the requests for money.
Virginia operates on a two-year budget, and last year was the big budget-writing year in the General Assembly. Budgets can change, though, especially when revenue is up – and the legislature is again in session.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin rolled out his proposed amendments to the budget in December. Now legislators have introduced theirs. We’ll get a better sense of things on Feb. 5 when the General Assembly’s two money committees – House Appropriations and Senate Finance – come out with their revised budgets. If you’re a legislator (or someone who has a project at stake), you want that funding included in what either or both of those committees proposes, because it’s almost impossible to get something added otherwise.
Some of the big proposals from our part of the state have already been reported:
- Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, wants $147 million to turn Catawba Hospital, a geriatric psychiatric hospital in Roanoke County, into a facility that treats substance use disorder. (See the story by Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt.)
- Sen. Todd Pillion and Dels. Israel O’Quinn and Will Wampler, all R-Washington County, want a total of $65 million to plan and build an inland port somewhere between Bristol and Wythe County. (See the story by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel.)
- Those same three legislators have also asked for $12 million to “begin resolving ongoing environmental issues at the Bristol Landfill.” Those “ongoing” issues are an awful stench that emanates from the site; Attorney General Jason Miyares is currently suing the city over environmental violations. (See the story by Cardinal’s Susan Cameron about why the landfill stinks so much.)
- Youngkin wants $10 million for the Virginia Power Innovation Fund to study and promote innovations in energy technology. Of that, he wants $5 million to go for nuclear research, including grants for research on technology related to the small modular nuclear reactor he’d like to see built in Southwest Virginia “and to assist with site selection.” (See our previous coverage of the nuclear proposal.)
- Youngkin has proposed $6 million to begin planning an expansion of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke. (See the story by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel.)
- Youngkin also has proposed $500,000 to study whether to turn the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university (see my previous column on this). Pillion and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, aren’t waiting: They’ve both proposed $45 million for a research facility. Separately, Kilgore is also asking for $58.9 million for a new technology building at the school.
There are lots of other budget requests floating around Richmond, some much bigger than those. As a general rule of thumb, it’s harder to obtain big sums of money than smaller ones, so while some of these requests are eye-popping in their size, keep in mind that many of these won’t get approved. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how serious something is until we see that it’s actually been included in the version of the budget that either the House or Senate committee has put out.
Nonetheless, here are some of the other requests pending in Richmond. I’ve included some of these because they’re big, others simply because they’re interesting. Either way, they give some sense of what our legislators’ priorities are.
Interstate 81: State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, has the biggest request that I can find from any legislator in this part of the state. He’s asking for $500 million for improvements on Interstate 81. State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, is also asking for more money for I-81, just not as much – $235 million. A note with his amendment adds: “This amount is half of the general fund dollars that were appropriated last year for the I-64 widening project by the 2022 General Assembly.” That’s a subtle reminder to legislators from the eastern part of the state: Hey, you got yours, now we want ours.
Southern Connector: Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, has asked for $375 million to construct the Southern Connector, a proposed road in Henry County. I wrote about this project in a previous column. Supporters say the road is necessary to give better access between U.S. 58 and North Carolina, otherwise there’s a bottleneck that makes the region a harder sell to companies that need to transport their goods. Opponents say the road would be bad for the environment and a waste of money. As an interim step, Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania County, has asked for $1 million to study improvements that can be made to U.S. 220 between Martinsville and the state line.
Community colleges: Wampler has asked for $25 million to renovate a building at Virginia Highlands Community College. Both state Sen. Travis Hackworth, and Del. Will Morefield, both R-Tazewell County, have measures related to two buildings at Southwest Virginia Community College. Morefield proposes $44.4 million to renovate them; Hackworth had budget language that calls for replacing them.
Broadband: Not surprisingly, rural broadband remains an issue. Newly elected Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, asks for $23.5 million in her county. Williams and state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, have both asked for $1 million for broadband in Patrick County.
Virginia Tech: Both Hackworth and Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, have asked for $21.7 million for the Virginia Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Experiment Station to build “new office, research and laboratory, field support, and field storage spaces” in Blacksburg.
Radford University: Both Ballard and state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, have asked for $11.8 million in additional operating support. The Edwards amendment notes that this will help “maintain affordable access to students by offsetting mandatory cost increases, inflationary factors and enrollment decline.”
Turning former mine sites into renewable energy sites: The buzz phrase for that is “brightfields,” as in turning “brownfields” – old industrial sites – into “brightfields.” Kilgore has proposed $10 million for the Virginia Brightfields Program. I’m certainly not a publicist for any legislator but from time to time I hear from environmentalists outside Southwest Virginia who want to complain that coal country legislators aren’t interested in renewable energy; I always point them to things like this. Don’t look for Southwest Republicans to be driving around with Greenpeace stickers on their bumpers, but they seem to fully understand how the energy world is changing. Meanwhile, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, who is nowhere near coal country, has proposed $20 million for the same brightfields program.
Those are some of the bigger requests I found that relate directly to our region – I was looking for things of a regional nature, not statewide programs, of which there are many other requests. But there are lots of smaller requests that are sometimes fascinating and perhaps consequential in certain communities. Among them:
Economic development in Henry County and Patrick County: Williams requests $6 million to expand public water and sewer along U.S. 58 in Henry County, which “would serve both residents and businesses and improve the long-term economic development and viability for Patrick County, allowing for more recruitment of large industries and manufacturing that rely on a public water system.” He also asks for $2 million to install equipment at the Rich Creek Corporate Park in Patrick County that would allow natural gas to be delivered. Williams has a lot of water- and sewer-related requests. Another one asks for $4 million to extend the water line to Stoney Mountain Road near Martinsville, “which serves mainly a minority community and individuals with low incomes.”
Elk crossing: Buchanan County now has an elk herd – see our previous story by outdoors writer Mark Taylor – and that means they sometimes cross the road. Elk are also, um, pretty big, so not something you want to hit with your car. Hackworth asks for $5 million for the Corridor Q Route 460/121 Poplar Creek Phase A elk crossings project.
Whitewater channel in Danville: Danville is redeveloping its downtown, most recently with an $85 million rehab of the former Dan River Mills building into mixed-used residential and commercial space – and, of course, a casino is on the way. As part of all that, Danville would like to build a channel along the Dan River for whitewater sports. Both Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, have asked for $3 million to make this happen.
“Forever chemicals” in the Roanoke River: Last year, substances known as “forever chemicals” were discovered in the Spring Hollow reservoir, one of the Roanoke Valley’s water supplies. The technical term is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances; they’re called “forever chemicals” because the compounds don’t break down easily and last a long time. These particular chemicals were later traced to an Elliston company that had been releasing them into its wastewater for treatment, but obviously the treatment didn’t filter them out. Edwards asks for $2.5 million for upgrades to the Western Virginia Water Authority to remove these chemicals from the water.
Floyd County’s water problems: Stanley asks for $1.8 million for the Floyd-Floyd County Public Service Authority, “which is experiencing a lot of failures with its water system.” Williams, meanwhile, asks for $5 million. His request specifies that some of the funds will be used for “the Greensand Filter for Well 6 ($700,000), a new water well ($200,000) and waterline replacement ($900,000) among other critical projects.” The political curiosity: Williams doesn’t represent Floyd County, at least not yet. It wasn’t part of the district he was elected from but redistricting has made it part of the district he’s running in this year – redistricting that pits him against Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County. Curiously, March has introduced only two budget amendments – one of which asks for $100,000 for a new well. So if you’re keeping score, Williams has asked for more money for Floyd’s water problems than its hometown legislator has. Will that kind of attention to local detail matter in the June primary? Or will Republican voters be more motivated by ideological concerns?
Meat processors: Pillion asks for $1.25 million to be used for grants across the state to increase the number of meat processors. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel had a story on why this is happening.
Roanoke airport: Youngkin wants $1.2 million for a study “to assess the viability of expanding airline services” across the state, with $200,000 specifically set aside “to study how to increase capacity at the Roanoke airport.”
Roanoke technical education: Rasoul asks for $937,928 for a technical education facility in Roanoke.
Barter Theatre renovation: O’Quinn asks for $920,500 for renovations at the Abingdon venue, a nonprofit that’s officially designated as the State Theatre of Virginia.
Community facilities: Williams asks for $900,000 for the renovation of the Bassett Community Center. Del. Matt Farris, R-Campbell County, wants $645,000 for the Altavista YMCA. Wampler and Pillion want $500,000 to help promote the Carter Fold music venue in Scott County and $500,000 to help expand the William King Center of the Arts in Abingdon. Adams asks for $255,000 each for library renovations in Gretna and Bassett. Hackworth and Morefield ask for $141,000 to renovate the cemetery in Pocahontas.
Montvale: This Bedford County community on U.S. 460 was for years home to “the tank farm,” a sprawling complex of petroleum tanks fed by a pipeline. The 54-year-old pipeline that serviced the tank farm needed repairs and the company that owned it determined they were too expensive, so the facility was closed in 2018. Farris has asked for $500,000 for “the Central Virginia Planning District Commission to complete a redevelopment plan for the site.”
Washington Commanders: Youngkin hasn’t given up on getting the National Football League team to relocate to Virginia. He wants $500,000 to help draft a plan, although the language notes that “any package of potential incentives, including the establishment of a potential Stadium Authority, shall be developed in the best interest of Virginia taxpayers.” I’ve previously columnized on how I think such a deal should look.
Robotic pets: This may be my favorite budget request of all. Ballard has asked for $500,000 so the state can “contract with a non-profit organization with experience providing robotic companion pets to veterans suffering with dementia.”
Coyotes, vultures and bears: A state budget is not known for its colorful language, so an item headlined “wildlife depredation” sure jumps out. Ruff is asking for $200,000 “to provide technical assistance for livestock producers dealing with wildlife depredation from coyotes, black vultures, and bears.” When I was growing up, the preferred solution to wildlife depredations was a 30-aught-six but we live in more civilized, or at least more regulated, times.
A new state park in Henry County?: Williams asks for $50,000 to study the feasibility of establishing a state park in Henry County between the North Mayo River and the South Mayo River. He also asks for $1 million for Henry County “to support development of adaptative park space for people with special needs” and $125,000 for a preliminary engineering report for expansion of the Dick and Willie Passage Trail in Henry County.
Electric car fires: O’Quinn asks for $50,000 so the Department of Fire Programs can “develop and provide statewide training regarding proper and safe strategies to combat electric vehicle fires.”
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but this should give you a sense of what budget writers will be grappling with.