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SWVA legislators: Session midpoint a mixed bag for region

Mike Still • Feb 15, 2020 at 10:30 AM

RICHMOND — Southwest Virginia Republican state legislators are seeing a mixed bag of results for the region as the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed crossover day for each house to consider the other’s bills.

First District Delegate Terry Kilgore, 40th District Senator Todd Pillion and 38th District Senator Ben Chafin reviewed the past four weeks of the session during a conference call with area press Thursday.

“They brought a trainload of liberal legislation to Richmond and they’re taking most of it back,” Chafin said of a range of measures introduced my majority-member legislators in the House of Delegates and Senate since the session began on Jan. 8.

The delegation agreed on concerns over two versions of a clean energy bill — House Bill 77 and Senate Bill 94, which both include plans to cut down on carbon emissions from power plants. Kilgore said the House version would target Dominion Energy’s Virginia City power plant unfairly by scheduling its shutdown in 2030 unlike another power plant with greater carbon emissions slated for closure in 2050.

“It’s the cleanest coal and biomass facility in the world,” Kilgore said.

Chafin said the plant has helped burn more than 3 million tons of gob pile coal waste since 2012, helping clean up gob piles across the region and also keeping that waste from contaminating waterways such as the Clinch River.

“The success of St. Paul is attached to the tax revenue from Virginia City,” Pillion said of the neighboring town’s work in tourism development and downtown revitalization.

Casino gambling has also been on the General Assembly’s agenda thanks to proposals for a casino in Bristol, and Pillion said House and Senate bills to authorize it face complications from differences on how much gambling revenue should be taxed and on proposals to increase the state’s minimum wage.

“We don’t want to tax ourselves out of these (casino) jobs,” Kilgore said. Chafin said legislators need to consider how the state’s minimum wage should be increased in phases so Southwest Virginia remains competitive for locating casinos.

Collective bargaining for public employees has passed the House with HB 582, and the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee is still reviewing SB 1022. Kilgore called the issue “very draconian” in how local governments would have to handle negotiations.

Chafin said collective bargaining by public employees poses “a significant cost” to local governments when they have to draw on their tax revenues.

All three legislators said they see potential for Southwest Virginia and rural school divisions with progress on funding for at-risk student populations, improved school construction funding for needed renovation and building upgrades. While a House school construction funding bill did not pass, a Senate version still awaits House consideration, Pillion said.

“We’re trying to hold off changes to the composite index, which could impact our local school divisions,” Kilgore said. The state’s composite index system decides the minimum level of funding counties and cities are required to provide for local school systems.

Gov. Ralph Northam has called for funding teacher raises in the second year of the biennial budget coming out of the current legislative session. Kilgore said he would like to see those raises start being funded in the first year of the budget.

“The economy in Southwest Virginia is pretty good right now,” Kilgore said. “If we’re going to do the raise, we need to do it this year.”

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