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Lynchburg-area legislators talk CVTC, workforce, gas prices and more at breakfast

View story at The News & Advance...Four local legislators met Wednesday for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance's semiannual Politics and Pancakes General Assembly wrap-up breakfast held at the University of Lynchburg.

Sen. Steve Newman, Sen. Mark Peake, Del. Kathy Byron and Del. Wendell Walker gathered to discuss the hot topics they worked on during this year’s session. All four are Republicans.

Scott Kowalski, chair of the Alliance's government relations committee, led the panel discussion and started off by asking legislators about the redevelopment plan for the Central Virginia Training Center that the Alliance had put together and which was presented to the Amherst County Board of Supervisors.
The plan envisions a mix of residential and business uses on the more than 300 acres in Madison Heights, where residents with disabilities lived until the center's closure in 2020.

Kowalski said the redevelopment plans are contingent on $25 million in outstanding bonds and Newman has introduced a budget amendment to settle these bonds.

Newman said for years, additional buildings have been constructed on CVTC's campus.
“And the difficulty has been that we did put four new buildings on that facility a number of years ago, that ended up being about $14 million in new bonds,” he said. “I think the commonwealth made a poor decision a number of years ago to start financing maintenance with bonds. That's a bad idea and the net result of that is that we have about $23.2 million in bonds on a facility that clearly has no more state use.”

Working alongside Peake and the entire delegation, the Senate put $25 million into its budget to cover the bonds plus fees and transaction requirements. The General Assembly has yet to pass a final state budget.

“But it's really going to be a high-stakes decision that will probably take place the next three to four weeks to decide whether or not this happens,” Newman said. “Let me give you the downside. If we don't get this done this time, I fear that these bonds are going to lay out there for 15 or 20 years. If that happens, all work [the Alliance] and other counties have done will really be put on hold for many, many years, maybe even a couple of decades.”

Kowalski asked about the Senate Bill 28, which is the Virginia Business Ready Sites Program Fund and is a discretionary program to promote development and characterization of sites to enhance the commonwealth's infrastructure and promote its competitive business environment.

“It’s no secret Virginia is behind and if you ask anybody in the economic development space, pad-ready sites are the thing, that’s how you get businesses to come to your community and choose you ahead of all the other options,” he said.

This legislation passed with very strong bipartisan support, Kowalski said, before asking legislators where things stand now with the Virginia Business Ready Sites Program and how it will help the overall economic development for the region.

Newman said the long-term effect of this kind of legislation is good for the state and for jobs.
“It's incredibly important,” he said. "This is a big deal. There are a couple of items that if they're successful, you'll hear about later on that are huge. I'm talking about thousands of jobs, maybe even tens of thousands of jobs for one facility. That's how big this is.”

Walker spoke about House Bill 346, which deals with college partnership laboratory schools, saying the bill is on hold for now but he thinks it is a great idea and should move forward.

The bill permits any public institution of higher education or private institution of higher education to apply to the Board of Education to establish a college partnership laboratory school as a new school or through the conversion of all or part of an existing school.

“The funding always seems to hold up everything we want to do,” he said. “And this was something that government really wants to see happen here in Virginia. It certainly gives us great opportunities as we're trying to train the future workforce.”

Walker also spoke about the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant, which has a long history of making private college and higher education institutions more affordable for in-state Virginia residents.

He said it was cut back quite a bit and the House is trying to get at least halfway back up to the funding level to where it previously was and eventually get up to full funding for the online programs.
“This is extremely important for the success here as well as other communities across the commonwealth,” he said. “So we're working very hard on the House side.”

Kowalski said it has been a long-term priority of the Alliance to have association health plans and it looks like this year it will happen.

Byron gave an overview, saying she is excited Gov. Glenn Youngkin has supported and signed the bill to allow for such health associations.

“Small businesses have been struggling for some time being able to find affordable health care, and y'all can pay higher premiums, higher deductibles than those that are in the large employer groups or other types of groups that pull their employees together like industry-specific consortium plans and union plans, this will level the playing field by allowing small employers with 50 or a few employees to join together as one large group to reduce administrative costs resulting in lower premiums for the small business,” she said.

Kowalski asked about transportation as drivers are feeling the pinch at the pump with rising gasoline prices and mentioned Youngkin’s suggestion of a gas tax holiday.

Newman said the Senate imposed an increase in the gas tax a couple of years ago and the House approved it. As a result of that, and because the use and price of gas had gone up, a windfall tax came into the transportation trust fund.

“That windfall is substantial,” he said. “It's about $400 million. And so the governor did what I think a lot of governors have done and they've called for a suspension of the taxes, in this case, the state taxes, which is 17 cents [per gallon], to be allowed to go back to those working families.”

He said the Biden administration is considering a 26-cent reduction of the federal gas tax temporarily in addition to releasing some of the nation's strategic oil reserve.

“The net result of all of this could be about a 70-cent change that's substantial and could really help working Virginians,” he said.

Kowalski said Peake introduced a bill this session to pause the next increase of the minimum wage in Virginia. The bill, which would have frozen the minimum wage at $11 per hour, was voted down in committee, 12-3.

“With workers and businesses alike being squeezed by the rising cost of living and business related expenses, is there a way for businesses to survive in [the] current economic environment, while at the same time being able to stay competitive wage wise without the increase in the minimum wage?” he asked.

Peake said the reality is, he doesn’t think anyone is paying minimum wage right now.

“It got nowhere in the Senate, plus in today's time, inflation the way it is and with employment the way it is, it’s kind of irrelevant,” he said. “I don't think the reality of minimum wage legislation is relevant anymore when your inflation rates are 10%, people can't afford to buy anything. But this is the whole problem when you artificially raise the minimum wage, inflation is going to go up, everything's going to cost more so when McDonald’s has to pay their people a lot more work, it’s going to cause the food to go up.”