‘Every session is unique’

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 10, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

With the holidays behind him, S. Chris Jones is sitting in his small office at Bennetts Creek Pharmacy surrounded by mounds of papers, preparing to enter his busy season.

He’s closing the year out for his business, trying to oversee the construction of a new home, as well as preparing to leave Suffolk for the capitol for the next two months.

Email newsletter signup

When the Virginia General Assembly session opens at noon Wednesday, it will be the 8th for the delegate from the 76th district, something that’s hard for him to believe.

&uot;Every session is unique,&uot; he said. &uot;Last year’s was an extraordinarily long and tiring session.&uot;

With no budget with which to deal, most pundits are anticipating a mostly uneventful session. And that’s fine with Jones. He had his fill of eventfulness during the last session.

Even with his regular Assembly schedule of rising at 5 a.m. each day and &uot;trying to get in bed by midnight,&uot; said Jones, this year’s session is likely to be a cakewalk by comparison.

One of the now famous &uot;17 breakaway Republicans&uot; from the 2004 session who broke with their party’s leadership to agree to the half-cent sales tax increase and forge a budget, Jones has come under attack from the anti-tax wing of his own party.

Along with Del. Preston Jones of Lynchburg, Jones was instrumental last year in the compromise that brought about the $1.4 billion tax increase and led to a budget being enacted. The effort won praise locally from city officials and most newspaper editorial boards.

But there has been negative fallout.

House Speaker William J. Howell bounced Bryant from his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee and both he and Jones were relieved of their duties on the joint commission on health care. Howell denied the moves were retaliatory in nature.

Jones is on the following committees: Privileges and Elections (vice chair) and Appropriations, General Laws and Rules. While he said this week that he has talked to Howell, they did not discuss committee assignments and he will go to Richmond this week expecting to serve on the same committees.

Jones’ top priority of the session will be accelerating the elimination of the food sales tax. He was a chief patron of the measure last year which reduced the 1.5-cent tax by half-a-cent a year. Because of the anticipated budget surplus, there is enormous support for a complete phase out in July.

Other priorities will be a bill championed by the Board of Pharmacies (Jones is a pharmacist) that will force out-of-state pharmacies that operate in the Commonwealth to play by Virginia’s rules. Another bill deals with filing campaign reports and contributions.

But the top issue this year will be transportation.

&uot;We’ll be spending a lot of time on it,&uot; said Jones. &uot;That’s needed. If you live in Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia, you know the problems we have getting around.&uot;

Doing something about transportation will have bipartisan support. Gov. Mark Warner introduced a transportation initiative in December, followed last week by an even more ambitious plan introduced by House Republicans.

&uot;Transportation will be dominant,&uot; said Jones. &uot;I’m confident we’ll get something accomplished. Probably less than some want and more than others want, but that’s the way it is with just about everything.&uot;

Interestingly, the budget battle not withstanding, there’s a lot more bipartisanship than people might think, Jones said.

&uot;Most of the issues we deal with are non-partisan and more regional in nature,&uot; he said. &uot;I’d say a very small percentage of what we deal with is going to be partisan, but partisan issues get more ink. What you are supposed to do is come up with answers to best serve your constituents.&uot;

And hearing from his constituents is one of his favorite parts of the session.

&uot;I always look forward to visits from friends and constituents from back home,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s great at the end of a tough day of meetings to come back to the office and see a friendly face waiting there.&uot;

E-mail has added tremendously to the volume of communication he receives, but many people still prefer see him face to face.

One familiar face he’ll see a lot more of this session is 13-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, who’ll be serving as a page for the first time.

As far as local issues are concerned, Jones said he plans on helping Suffolk obtain permission to combine its Health and Social Services departments in order to gain efficiencies. He said he doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for seeing the city’s adequate public facilities bill advance. Last year it died in Sen. Frederick Quayle’s local government committee. The bill would have given municipalities like Suffolk the authority to delay new housing developments until money was in place for roads and schools. It was bitterly opposed by the power shelter industry.

&uot;I’m not even sure Sen. Quayle will be brining it back,&uot; he said. &uot;My real concern has always been property rights and how they are treated, but growth has to be balanced with the greater good.&uot;

There was talk early on about Suffolk requesting a charter change to provide for a mayor elected at large, but Jones said Mayor Bobby L. Ralph has indicated the city would like to have more time to explore the matter before taking it to the legislature.

Even with everything going on his life and the uncertainty over how the party leadership will treat him – Jones has been targeted by at least one anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, to be challenged this year – he remains excited about the session and doesn’t have any regrets about the central role he played in last year’s budget deal.

&uot;I like to move on to the next thing,&uot; he said. &uot;I can’t remember who said it, but the new session is upon us and we need to look at life not through the rearview mirror, but through the windshield.&uot;