The 2023 General Assembly has reached its midpoint, so for expert analysis let’s turn to a legendary political analyst whose last name begins with the letter “S”: William Shakespeare. (What? You were expecting somebody else?)
The great writer/real estate investor from Statford-upon-Avon summed up this year’s legislature quite well more than four centuries ago when he had Macbeth utter the words: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
With a Republican House of Delegates and a Democratic state Senate – and an election for all 140 seats looming in November – nothing big seems likely to happen in this year’s session, at least not legislatively.
Abortion restrictions? Not passing a Democratic state Senate.
Gun restrictions? Not passing a Republican House.
Creating a retail market for cannabis? Not happening.
Regulating so-called skill games? Not happening, either.
Whatever bills do pass will, by definition, be bipartisan – and probably few in number.
The one thing that is certain to pass – and a place where some big things could happen – is a revised state budget.
We got the first look at the revised state budgets preferred by each chamber’s money committees on Sunday, and they had three big headlines for this part of Virginia. The biggest was money to buy a site for an inland port somewhere between Wythe County and Bristol; the House also included money to construct it, the Senate did not, but both were in agreement on including money to buy a site.
The House version of the budget also included $150 million for adding a third lane each way on Interstate 81 between Roanoke and Daleville and $14.7 million to renovate a building at Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County, the first step toward converting the geriatric psychiatric hospital into an addiction recovery center. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote about those items in his report on Sunday.
Each of these things is a big deal in its own way, with the inland port arguably the biggest of them all. Here’s a brand new thing that the state will presumably be building – and it will be in Southwest Virginia. At one time, what Southwest Virginia got were prisons, which do create jobs but aren’t generally regarded as economic development engines. An inland port would be, assuming it develops the way Virginia’s existing inland port near Front Royal has. That one has generated 8,500 jobs in the area, mostly in trucking and warehousing. That’s why the Southwest Virginia legislative delegation met with Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to impress upon him how important that request was to the region. This may not arrive with the same screaming headlines as a single corporate announcement but it could wind up being bigger, much bigger, over the longer term.
Beyond those initial headlines, though, the House and Senate versions of the budget contain lots of other items that are potentially important to Southwest and Southside, just not on that scale. Among them: a proposal for a public-private partnership for Interstate 81, a whitewater rafting course through downtown Danville, a study of what to do with the old gas tank farm in Montvale, and a study of turning the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke into a state agency.
Keep in mind that Virginia works on a two-year state budget, which passed last year, so these changes are in the form of amendments to that document. Also keep in mind that nothing is certain until the ink from the governor’s pen dries. There’s plenty of time for haggling – and sometimes even legislative mischief – between now and then. You’ll see that there are more specifics in the House budget than the Senate budget; those differences will have to get worked out in a conference committee. You’ll have better luck figuring out what happens in a secret meeting at the Kremlin than knowing what goes on in a budget conference committee in Richmond, but here are some of the starting points for a lot of those negotiations as they relate to some specific items for the western third of the state. They are listed in descending order of amounts:
As noted above, the House budget includes $150 million for widening a stretch of I-81 in the Roanoke Valley north of Roanoke; you can likely thank Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, who is both vice chair of House Appropriations and chair of its transportation subcommittee, for that. The Senate version includes $250 million for widening I-81 around Staunton. The House version also includes $500,000 “to support a study on the use of a public-private partnership to advance the completion of the I-81 corridor expansion with Commonwealth Transportation Funds.” Those of us of a certain age remember a previous attempt at a public-private partnership to widen I-81 – the STAR Solutions project in the early 2000s that would have turned four lanes into eight lanes, but obviously didn’t. This seems like something that might be important. The Senate version of the budget says there’s some language related to I-81 but the actual language hasn’t been released, so we don’t know yet what that says.
The budget isn’t all about laying down asphalt. There’s $35 million in the House budget for the Shenandoah Valley Trail (also known as the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail), which would convert a 46-mile unused rail bed from Broadway to Front Royal into a trail. The House budget also includes an additional $12.5 million for the Craig Valley Trail along Craig Creek in Craig County and Botetourt County that was set in motion through last year’s budget, plus $4 million for the Eastern Shore Trail, $1.25 million for the Peaks to Creek Trail in the Lynchburg, $1.25 million for the Tobacco Heritage Trail in Brunswick and Mecklenburg counties (and eventually envisioned to run from Greensville County to Danville), and $111,334 for a trail from Cumberland Courthouse to Bear Creek Lake State Park.
In all, the House version includes $30 million for various talent development programs through the GO Virginia regional boards. Among the ones singled out: $2.5 million for GO Virginia Region 5 in Hampton Roads for shipbuilding, offshore wind and tunnel construction; $2.5 million to GO Virginia Region 3 in Southside to expand the GO TEC program, which introduces skilled trades to students as young as middle school; $2.5 million for GO Virginia Region 1 in Southwest Virginia for nursing programs and commercial drivers license programs; and $975,000 for GO Virginia Region 2 in New River-Roanoke-Lynchburg for attracting technology workers. (See the previous story on the GO TEC program by Cardinal’s Grace Mamon and my previous column about the growth of the technology sector in the Roanoke and New River valleys.)
Cruise ship port in York County
OK, York County isn’t anywhere close to our coverage area but I thought this was an interesting expenditure: The Senate budget has $7.5 million “for support of a cruise ship port-of-call location and related visitor support and tourism on the York River at Yorktown.” We now return you to your regularly scheduled report on projects in Southwest and Southside:
We’ve heard of “brownfields” – old, contaminated industrial sites. “Brightfields” is the term for turning those into solar energy facilities. The House budget includes $5 million for brightfields on former coal mines in Southwest Virginia.
Whitewater course in Danville
The House version includes $3 million to create a whitewater rafting course on the Dan River through downtown Danville, which would serve both as a tourist attraction and a training site for swift water rescue personnel – something that Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, had requested. The House version makes the money contingent on $6 million in matching funds. The Senate version includes $1 million for the course.
The House version increases state aid from $2 million to $4 million for the stinky landfill – shy of the $12 million that had been requested. See this previous story by Cardinal’s Susan Cameron on why the landfill emits such a stench.
Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute
Both budgets include $2.95 million to plan for expansion of the Roanoke campus. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote about this last month.
The Senate budget includes an additional $1.3 million to promote meat processing in the state, raising the total amount from $3.75 million to $5.08 million. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote last year about why there’s a need for more meat processors.
Youngkin had asked for $1.2 million to study how to expand air service in Virginia, with $200,000 specifically set aside “to study how to increase capacity at the Roanoke airport.” The Senate version cuts the whole amount.
The House version includes $920,500 for the “State Theatre of Virginia,” which is Barter’s designation. Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, had asked for that amount for renovations.
Virginia Museum of Transportation
Both chambers include $500,000 for the nonprofit museum in Roanoke. The House version also includes some language directing the Secretary of Education to convene a group to study the possibility of converting the museum into a state agency. You’ll recall that this is something that state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, pushed a year ago but which got voted down.
The House version includes $500,000 for “improvements” at the nonprofit theater in the Botetourt County town of Buchanan.
Montvale tank farm
The House budget includes $500,000 for a study of how to redevelop the now-closed gasoline tank farm in Montvale in Bedford County.
Carter Family Fold
The House budget adds $500,000 for promotion of the music venue in Scott County.
University of Virginia’s College at Wise
Gov. Glenn Youngkin had proposed $500,000 to study converting UVA Wise into a research university. The Senate budget cuts that figure to $100,000.
Here’s a place where the House and Senate disagree. Youngkin had wanted $500,000 to study the prospect of persuading the Washington Commanders football team to move to Virginia. The Senate version strips this money out.
The House budget adds $400,000 in addition to the $11.4 million appropriated last year for flood relief in Buchanan County. Half of this would be split between the Buchanan County and Tazewell County Departments of Social Services, the other half would go to Buchanan County. While the August 2021 flood in Hurley was strictly in Buchanan County, the flooding last summer was in both Buchanan and Tazewell.
The House budget includes $350,000 for “structural rehabilitation” of the Haller-Gibboney Rock House Museum in Wytheville.
New judge in Franklin County, Pittsylvania and Danville
Both budgets include $290,149 to add an additional judge in the 22nd Judicial District.
Breaks Interstate Park
The House budget includes $287,500 for maintenance at the park, which straddles the Virginia-Kentucky line.
Rail study in Lynchburg
The recent state report on inland ports said that the Lynchburg market couldn’t support an inland port – too close to the water port at Hampton Roads – but said the region could do more to develop rail-based business, pointing out that the Hill City benefits from having both Norfolk Southern and CSX pass through. The Senate budget includes $200,000 for a “Central Virginia rail-centric economic development study.”
This is my favorite phrase in the whole budget. State Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, asked for $200,000 “to provide technical assistance for livestock producers dealing with wildlife depredation from coyotes, black vultures, and bears.” The Senate budget includes that amount. I have not been able to reach the coyotes, black vultures and bears for comment.
Augusta County Courthouse
The House budget includes $150,000 for converting the old courthouse in downtown Staunton – which voters last year decided to replace with a new facility in Verona – into a museum.
The House budget includes $141,000 for renovation of the cemetery in the Tazewell County town to address erosion concerns.
The House includes $97,000 for the Department of Historic Resources to conduct a study of the surviving buildings in the state that are mentioned in the Green Book, a historic guide in the days of segregation when accommodations were difficult for Black travelers to find. The language says at least 60 such structures once mentioned in the Green Book still stand in Virginia.
Pesticide inspector for Southwest Virginia
The House budget adds $75,000 for an additional position.
Institute for Advanced Learning and Research
The Senate budget has language authorizing planning to begin for expansion of the institute’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Danville.
There’s no money for the proposed four-lane highway between Beckley, West Virginia, and Pound, Virginia (well, proposed in Virginia; parts of it actually exist in West Virginia). However, there is language in the House version that directs the Virginia Department of Transportation to help find grant funding for the project.
This is, by no means, a comprehensive list. The budget is an arcane document, often difficult to read, so I won’t rule out that I may have missed something. And given that many of these line items are in the budget on one side but not the other, some of them might not make it through to the final version. To return to our political analyst quoted at the beginning, Shakespeare said: “If money goes before, all ways do lie open.” That’s surely what the advocates for each of these proposals believes.