Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood are a long way from Richmond — a five-and-a-half-hour drive, if Google Maps is to be believed. Google Maps is often optimistic.
Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood are so far away that they’re closer to five other state capitals than their own.
In one way, Richmond doesn’t even believe they exist — neither community is on the state highway map.
And yet, there they are, along Dismal River Road in Buchanan County, about 6 miles from the West Virginia line, but still very much in Virginia.
While Richmond — or perhaps, more accurately, some in Richmond — may not know that Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood exist, they are very much aware that Richmond exists, despite its distance, both geographical and metaphorical.
I refer to the state budget negotiations, which seem, by all accounts, to be moving slowly — and perhaps may not move at all. The Virginia Mercury this week published an update on the status of those negotiations, and concluded with a quote from state Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond. He, like other Democrats, objects to some of the tax cuts that Republicans want. In fact, he objects to them so much that he said, “I would prefer we not have a budget at all than send the money of hard-working Virginians to millionaires and corporations.”
This is not the first time that we’ve heard this suggestion that maybe we don’t need a budget after all. Back in the winter, a leading Republican — House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore of Scott County — said much the same thing.
Important clarification: Virginia does have a budget. The state operates on a two-year spending plan, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law last summer. What’s at issue now are amendments to that budget, although sometimes that critical distinction gets dropped out in the shorthand discussion of “budget negotiations.”
Both sides — Republicans who control the House, Democrats who control the Senate — have tried to use the existence of that budget as leverage in the ongoing negotiations over the amendments. Republicans want tax cuts and less spending. Democrats want no tax cuts and more spending. The logical compromise would be some tax cuts (not as big as what Republicans want but more than what Democrats want) and some spending (not as much as what Democrats want but more than what Republicans would do on their own).
Politics, though, isn’t always logical. Some Democrats can’t stomach the thought of those tax cuts, which, in their view — well, you just heard Bagby’s view that these tax cuts would benefit “millionaires and corporations.” Republicans likewise can’t stomach not enacting tax cuts, which they say will help juice the economy. Since there’s already a budget in place, neither side has to budge. State government will keep functioning just fine, based on the two-year spending plan already in place. In fact, both sides might see some political advantage in not passing any budget amendments: Republicans would surely love to go to voters this fall and blame Democrats for not passing tax cuts. Democrats might well love to go to the voters to say they held firm against a Republican giveaway to “millionaires and corporations.” Viewed that way, it’s almost easier for both parties to throw their hands up and simply start campaigning — the attack lines are too easy. The harder thing is to come up with a compromise that won’t satisfy either side.
For now it’s said that Tuesday’s upcoming primaries are complicating negotiations — Senate Finance co-chair George Barker, D-Fairfax County, faces a strong challenger (and a remapped district where 93% of the district is new to him). In all, five members of the 15-member Senate Finance Committee are engaged in trying to fend off primary challengers. I understand that makes it hard to compromise on anything. The question is whether compromise will be any easier to come by after the primary, or whether both parties might just walk away, blame the other side and start campaigning.
Far be it from me to tell the parties how they should settle matters of tax policy that both sides hold deeply. I’ll just point out one consequence of not passing an amendment budget: Every day that there’s not an amended budget means another day that there’s no flood relief for Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood.
Last July, storm clouds parked themselves over these mountains and dumped more than 6 inches of rain in just a few hours. A flood swept down the Dismal River, leaving 70 homes damaged or destroyed. For a time, this flood captured not just the state’s attention but the nation’s. At first, more than 40 people were unaccounted for. Thankfully, they were merely cut off from communication, but those initial reports conjured up memories of the devastation that Hurricane Camille wrought on Nelson County in 1969, where mountains simply melted into mud. When the waters receded, Youngkin went to Buchanan County, stood by the banks of a muddy and still-swollen Dismal River, and vowed that, “Now we’re going to have to rebuild, and the state’s going to do everything that we possibly can do to help.” That’s a good thing, because the federal government has made it clear it won’t do anything; the Federal Emergency Management Administration turned down a request to help property owners in Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood, just as it did a year earlier for a similar flood in the Buchanan County community of Hurley. Basically, FEMA said the communities were too poor to deserve that kind of aid. (FEMA said it more diplomatically but that’s what the agency meant — the damage estimates weren’t big enough to merit federal involvement. This has been a longstanding issue with rural areas hit by disasters, and legislators from both parties have complained, to no avail.)
Youngkin was true to his words. In December, when the governor proposed his budget amendments, he included $11 million in flood relief for Buchanan and Tazewell counties (the latter also had some flooding, just not as severe). In the House of Delegates, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, got the amount amended upwards to $18 million. Right now, though, the amount going to these communities is zero because those budget amendments are still waiting to be finalized — if they’re ever going to be finalized at all.
This money might be a trivial amount in the context of a state budget that tops $165 billion over two years, even without amendments that might authorize more spending. Just this week, Youngkin announced that general fund collections are ahead of their forecasted amounts by $948 million so far this year. Even the expanded $18 million for Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood amounts to just 1.9% of that overage.
Susan Cameron, Cardinal’s reporter based in Bristol, recently visited those communities and described how the effects of that flood last summer are still painfully visible:
“Interspersed among the small brick and frame houses and mobile homes that dot the sides of the road are the crumbling foundations of homes, garages and outbuildings that were damaged beyond repair and the shells of trailers swept downstream and abandoned after the storm. Although repairs were made to the road in the immediate aftermath of the flash flooding and a number of bridges were fixed, the damage is still evident. Across the river, portions of railroad track can still be seen dangling from the side of a cliff.”
She goes on to report: “About half of the damaged homes have been repaired, but the rebuilding of the homes that were destroyed hasn’t even started.”
Would I be out of line to suggest that if this flood had happened in some more favored part of the state that these conditions, nearly a year later, would not be tolerated? We apparently tolerate them here, though, partly because a legislator from the most affluent part of Virginia is tied up in a reelection campaign.
Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood don’t get a say in the budget negotiations, but the people there have more at stake in the outcome than most of us.