By Brandon Martin
Local representatives from the Virginia General Assembly voiced displeasure with efforts by the Democratic-majority during an April 20 post-legislative update to the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, and Dels. Les Adams, R-Chatham; Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill; and Danny Marshall, R-Danville, discussed the ups and downs from the most recent legislative session.
Adams said the proposed bills by the more Northern, Democratic-leaning representatives left his side of the aisle with whiplash.
“We’ve had basically one-party governance over two years now in Richmond,” Adams said. “There’s been a lot of changes.”
These changes were made without input from the State Senate Republicans, Stanley added.
“The Democrats were not engaged in, or interested in much, collaboration,” Stanley said. “They were very tight in terms of what their agenda was going to be, to the exclusion of any type of input from any of us even if we might have agreed in substance but not style.”
Among the most pressing changes were:
Marshall said changes in the minimum wage are set to hit small businesses hard.
“Minimum wage will go up May 1,” Marshall said. “It goes up to $9.50 (an hour), and then it stair-steps and goes to January 1, 2022 and it stair-steps up again.”
According to Marshall, a report by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership in December 2020 “found that 25 percent of the small businesses in Virginia are going to go out of business due to the pandemic.
“My thought was, we are now having a real struggle with small businesses with all of the problems the governor has placed on them about not being in business. They can’t open and they only allow a certain number of people in their businesses,” Marshall said, and added that he proposed a bill to delay the implementation of the minimum wage increase until January 1, 2022.
“Of course that did not pass,” he said. “It fell on a 5-3 party-line vote.”
This was one of the signs that Poindexter said makes the current composition of the House of Delegates “anti-business.”
Besides legislation to allow tax credits to businesses for personal protective equipment, Poindexter said “the rest was anti-business in different respects.”
“You need to be preparing for litigation,” Poindexter said. “You need to be bringing in labor attorneys” to avoid “onerous fines and lawsuits, which even if you win, you do not collect damages in most cases.”
Marshall discussed ongoing efforts to restructure the country’s energy sector.
“Last year, there was a bill similar to Virginia’s version of the Green New Deal,” Marshall said. “It wants to make us carbon-free by the year 2045. Then this year, they brought a bill to require that new car dealers, by 2025, eight percent of the cars on their lots have to be electric.”
Marshall said he wonders “how are you going to charge all of these cars?”
To address that, Marshall said a budget amendment was added to create “charging stations all over the state of Virginia” with “all of your tax dollars.”
Marshall said efforts are to make “all cars less than 12,000-14,000 pounds” electric.
“I asked one of the people with AEP ‘if that happens, and they use solar, how many acres would that take,” Marshall said. “He came back to me a little while later and said it would take 100,000 acres of solar to power all of the cars currently in Virginia. That’s not including any growth or anything of that nature.”
Additionally, Marshall said he was told “there’s not enough electricity in the state of Virginia now to power all of the electric cars. We would have to go out-of-state to bring electricity in,” which he said would likely come from West Virginia which uses natural gas or coal.
Poindexter said it is tied to other projected increases in electricity rates for Virginia residents.
“Your electric rates are going up folks,” Poindexter said. “RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) passed for the Northeast Compact on Electricity. The rate adjustment clause will come to the State Corporation Commission for that. That’s going to add another $173 million to electric bills and it’s going to especially affect business because you use more kilowatt hours than say a private home.”
Stanley said renewable energy is another sector that will further divide the financial futures of the northern and southern parts of the state.
“They have one desire, which is to turn all of our green areas down here, all of our farms, into solar to serve them,” Stanley said. “So then making them the masters in terms of energy where they are going to dictate what our policy is and how we are going to use our family farms so that they can drive and feel good about driving their electric cars on 495. That is what they are thinking of us right now.”
When asked about potential tax benefits for localities, Poindexter said the costs would offset any benefits.
“Normally in the case of infrastructure development, say a pipeline or what we are talking about here, the local governments would receive some revenue from it,” Poindexter said. “However, then you have to factor in the cost to it, too.”
Poindexter said a number of bills have been passed in the previous two sessions concerning local revenue from solar panels.
“To deploy solar, they’ve been given a lot of tax breaks,” he said. “It’s still not going to be taxed at the same rate as a new business or a pipeline or something like that. In other words, they’ve been given favored tax treatment to solicit out-of-state national companies into Virginia to build solar.”
With those tax breaks, investors have clamored for open real estate.
“The way I understand it, these companies come into areas and present some projects that are attractive to landowners, who then basically have this passive income coming from the lease to the solar farm,” Adams said. “There may be benefits to the locality in terms of the real estate tax, perhaps if the use is changing, but I think the carve outs that Del. Poindexter mentioned may be some of the concerns. There may be ways we can adjust to this in the future to see that our local governments are able to benefit from these projects if they are going to continue at this kind of rate.”
Stanley said economic development opportunities also are being affected by the partisan divide.
“The I-73 corridor continues to be supported by everyone on this phone call,” Stanley said. “Outside of our area right now, the $4 billion price tag does not seem to be one that Virginia wants to undertake at this time. The $4 billion would be from the North Carolina line all the way to the West Virginia border.”
Stanley said a study conducted by Chmura found that the money could be recouped within eight years “based on increased tax revenues.”
He added the interstate would impact the ports of Virginia as well.
“Quite frankly, as we know Route 58 is not always the best route,” Stanley said. “It’s not an interstate grade highway. So, what we’ve been doing is focusing on the Southern Connector. The Southern Connector costs $600 million, and it’s an 8- or 9-mile road, and it would connect from the 58 bypass down to the modern 220 turning into I-73.”
Forecasting federal initiatives on infrastructure, Stanley said local representatives are lobbying congressmen and senators to join the fight.
“We understand that if the Congress is going to pass this multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill, which a lot of the things in the bill I wouldn’t agree with, but if they are going to pass it, then our area and our region in Martinsville-Henry County should derive some benefit,” Stanley said. “I wrote a letter in support to both Sens. (Tim) Kaine and (Mark) Warner, asking that we find funding for the Southern Connector through federal monies, or at least a great portion of it.”
If the federal government picks up some of the tab, Stanley said “it would be easier for us to go back to the General Assembly and ask for a portion of that money.”
Paraphrasing a comment from a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board opposed the Southern Connector, Stanley said, “‘why should we do anything for them? There is nothing going on down there.’”
According to Stanley, the Southern Connector could be built “in a reasonably short amount of time” with the process currently in the position of licensing.
“That license with the federal government costs $2 million and I think it lasts for five years,” Stanley said. “I think if we could maybe combine some funding from the federal government and the state government, then we could see that built.”
The benefits of the Southern Connector are numerous, Stanley said.
“That would connect us to three deep water ports and the economy of North Carolina,” Stanley said. “I have said that if you have no interest in Northern Virginia in connecting our economy with yours, even though we helped you grow when we were the industrial center point of Virginia, then let us go somewhere else. If that’s the case, then we will go to North Carolina and that’s where we will be.”
Currently, Stanley said he views the Southern Connector project “more reasonable” than “I-73 being built in our lifetime.”