Lawmakers state their cases at IW breakfast

Published 10:22 pm Friday, January 3, 2014

The new Route 460 and mental health services were among various local and commonwealth-wide issues area state politicians discussed during a pre-session legislative breakfast in Smithfield Friday.

Delegate Rick Morris shared the speaker’s platform at the Isle of Wight-Windsor Chamber of Commerce event with senators Louise Lucas and John Cosgrove. They outlined what will be their respective areas of focus when the General Assembly convenes in Richmond Wednesday.

During a pre-session state legislative breakfast hosted Friday by the Isle of Wight-Windsor Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Louise Lucas attempts to drum up support for legalizing casinos.

During a pre-session state legislative breakfast hosted Friday by the Isle of Wight-Windsor Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Louise Lucas attempts to drum up support for legalizing casinos.

The representatives also fielded pre-submitted audience questions, including on the timeline for and legitimacy of the Route 460 toll road project between Suffolk and Petersburg, the state’s funds-starved retirement system, and what became of lottery revenue that was supposed to fund education.

Email newsletter signup

Saying he learned more during 2013 about road maintenance and construction “than one person should have to learn,” Morris defended a Virginia Department of Transportation that has been besieged — among other reasons — for pressing ahead with the new 460, despite the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ concerns over wetlands.

Morris also said he would focus on keeping the state government “within the boundaries of constitutional limitations,” and oppose any imposition on localities of unfunded mandates.

“I will not vote for unfunded mandates; I oppose every unfunded mandate,” Morris declared.

Lucas, who has already introduced for the 2014 session a bill that would do so, spoke at length on legalizing casinos in Virginia to fund transportation, education and more.

Casinos are the only way of bridging shortfalls without raising taxes, she said, arguing the commonwealth is losing revenue to neighboring states that already have legalized them.

“Come up with a better idea … and I would be more than happy to support it,” the breakfast’s sole Democratic representative said.

Responding to the question of when would the new 460 be built, Cosgrove said he was a “big supporter” of the road — Morris and Lucas also voiced their support — and would not object to paying tolls on the interstate-style road.

He stressed the importance of the road as an evacuation route, saying that without it, “In a serious emergency … we’ll have people laying facedown in the water, and we’ll be pulling bodies out for weeks.”

Lucas said, “Senior citizens and our youth are going to be the most vulnerable; a lot of people will die.”

Morris said he hopes governor-elect Terry McAuliffe would fast track the supplement to the original environmental impact statement requested by the corps.

He also spoke about giving localities more power to fire appointees without a court ruling, saying it would bring more accountability and efficiency to local government, and he said school boards should have more flexibility with standardized testing.

“There needs to be some method to ensure that they are meeting the minimum requirements … but the current SOL (Standards of Learning) system is onerous, to say the least,” he said.

He voiced support for legislation ensuring property owners who take a locality to court and win are awarded costs, and he called for mandatory public expenditure reviews by private-sector business experts.

Morris said he would support returning $700,000 to Western Tidewater Regional Jail for revenue lost to the state under an arrangement to house federal inmates, and called for “mental health drop-off centers” to help law enforcement deal with individuals subject to temporary detention orders.

For the chamber, the annual event is also an opportunity to flag local legislative priorities. The county’s director of information resources and legislative affairs, Don Robertson, described a range of issues, including building the new 460 for the benefit of the local business community, and increasing education funding without neglecting early education and K-12.

Robertson also cited the issue of mental health. “We want to encourage and make sure mental health funding is in place, because of the impact it has on law enforcement.”

The Chamber also says it wants the General Assembly to grant a funding request by the Virginia Small Business Development Center Network, develop a unified approach to illegal immigration, and support Paul D. Camp Community College’s legislative agenda, which includes establishing an equipment trust fund for workforce development.

The Chamber wants to see the minimum hourly wage in Virginia not exceed the federal level of $7.25, and says localities should continue to be bound by the Dillon Rule, which, in general, limits their powers to those conferred by the state.