Wagner meets supporters in Suffolk

Published 10:46 pm Saturday, August 1, 2009

Transportation, education and economic development.

Problems with any of the three will cause problems with the other two. And all three issues are at the top of people’s minds as they move into Virginia’s election season.

Jody Wagner, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor seemed unsurprised by the issues that dominated a roundtable held Friday with about 25 active members of the city’s Democratic Party.

In fact, she set the tone for the one-hour discussion when she briefly addressed all three issues in an opening statement while seated at a table during a visit to Suffolk’s First Lady banquet hall.

Competitive development incentives, programs aimed at reducing dropout rates and access to high-speed rail service were among the initiatives she suggested on Friday.

Still, though, her plans lacked specifics when she was gently pressed by the crowd of supporters to explain how a state administration that included her would pay for the things on her list.

With the economy still on shaky ground and stimulus money for education already largely spent, she said, it’s unlikely there will be a quick infusion of cash into the state’s school systems.

“It may be a while before we get any real money to invest in the educational system,” she told Suffolk School Board member Thelma Hinton.

Whenever more education money is available, Wagner said, her priorities would be to encourage preschool for 4-year-olds, more special programs for at-risk students and a greater concentration on science-related curricula.

Transportation initiatives aimed at eventually expanding light rail into Suffolk and bringing a proposed high-speed rail line from the I-95 corridor into Hampton Roads joined tunnel upgrades and a third crossing of the James River among her goals for the area’s roadways.

“We’ve got to get people to understand that there are hidden threats to not fixing traffic,” the Virginia Beach resident and business owner said.

“There’s a real cost to our (traffic) frustrations — not just an emotional cost, but a physical cost and an economic cost.”

But when asked by two different people attending the roundtable discussion how she would suggest paying for the solutions she had promoted — through tolls or a gas tax, for example — Wagner demurred.

Gas taxes, she said, ignore the loss of revenue that occurs as people travel less and do so more efficiently. And tolls, which Suffolk City Councilman John H. Barlow suggested could be placed along the state’s major points of entry, would not be allowed on interstates unless improvements were made to those roads, she said.

“Frankly, there’s going to have to be a solution that’s going to make everybody unhappy,” Wagner added.

She scoffed at her opponent’s suggestion that revenues generated by Virginia’s ports should be used to help pay for transportation improvements, noting that doing so would deplete Virginia’s general fund, leaving the state to find other ways to make up for the money that would be transferred from existing programs.

Wagner suggested that her experience as the state’s treasurer and secretary of finance under Virginia’s last two governors is one of her strongest points.

She noted that various publications had named Virginia the “Best managed state” under both Gov. Tim Kaine and former Gov. Mark Warner; the “Best state to do business in” six different times during their administrations; the “Best state to start a business in”; and the “Best state to raise a child in.”

Her opponent, incumbent Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, released a preemptive statement on Friday that cast scorn on Wagner’s state government experience.

“Jody Wagner has a record of failed leadership,” the press release stated. “As Secretary of Finance, Wagner’s fiscal mismanagement resulted in $5 billion budget shortfalls, missed revenue projections by 20 percentage points and significantly increased state debt, while supporting every tax increase proposed in the last seven years.”