Legislative Breakfast Mood Mirrors Richmond

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Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce President Joyce Waugh moderated the discussion during last Friday’s breakfast.
Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce President Joyce Waugh moderated the discussion during last Friday’s breakfast.

by Valerie Garner

The tension in Richmond for the most part did not openly carry over to Friday’s 2012 legislative breakfast,  though one could hear inklings of it if listening closely.

The breakfast is held annually by the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce. On the dais were senators Ralph Smith and John Edwards and delegates Nick Rush, Greg Habeeb, Charles Poindexter, Onzlee Ware and Chris Head.

Chamber CEO John Francis wondered why legislators could not get their act together on transportation funding saying, “unfortunately little progress was made this year in finding long term solutions to adequately fund our growing list of transportation infrastructure.”

Part of that list included extending Amtrak to Roanoke and legislation that would provide more access to capital for small businesses. President Joyce Waugh asked questions submitted by some of the 100 attendees.

Del. Chris Head (R-17) while not pointing fingers at the Senate took the opportunity to bemoan the failure to pass a budget and appoint judges by the end of the session.

The increase of the transient occupancy tax for Roanoke County from 5 percent to 7 percent was a team effort said Head. Roanoke’s Senator John Edwards carried the bill on the Senate side. The money will go to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for marketing the Roanoke Valley.

Ware said this having been his 9th session “the lights have really been turned on for me – it takes you a while to learn the process.” He commended the Republican delegates for their nonpartisanship  “It takes understanding that it’s not about Democrat or Republican … we’re the envy of other House members,” said Ware.

Franklin County’s Delegate Charles Poindexter quipped that “contrary to the reports I didn’t spend all my time on two percent of the legislation,” a reference to the nationally publicized social issues that hit the comedy circuit. “We took the bull by the horns on the Virginia Retirement System and made some significant steps forward in reforming the system.”

Sen. Edwards is hoping that the final budget will contain $150,000 for another year of bus service to Lynchburg where Roanokers can catch the Amtrak train. “It has been a huge success,” said Edwards. This Amtrak train is the only one of a few that is making money. He felt that within two to three years there would be an Amtrak train coming to Roanoke.

Senator Ralph Smith (R-19) carried a bill that eliminated bureaucracy for septic tank installers. (SB662) Septic installers will now get a break from taking classes if they have practiced their trade for at least eight years. Del. Poindexter’s HB1262 mirrored it on the House side.

On the budget impasse Smith said, “sometimes we do a lot of dancing around protecting our turf … but we are blessed in having a two-party system and not a one party system like other countries have.” Smith has never missed a day or vote in any session or committee since taking office.

Delegate Habeeb defended Governor Bob McDonnell’s rejection of the Senate’s proposal to index the gas tax to inflation saying, “until the public views their transportation needs as more important than the dollars we were talking about, it’s simply that the political system won’t allow anything of great significance to occur.” Habeeb’s 8th District constituents rank transportation at the bottom. It will only become important to the public when safety and economic development become more important to the public. “This year was a complete failure on the funding side,” he said.

Del. Poindexter opposed the bill to revamp the Commonwealth Transportation Board members making them representatives of congressional districts versus the VDOT construction districts. It would have decreased the influence of rural Virginia, he said.

A question about the slow pace of judicial appointments went to Sen. Edwards and Del. Habeeb who both serve on their respective judicial subcommittees. Edwards said getting agreement on judges has become more of a problem. He blamed the House Judicial Committee that Habeeb serves on for sending bills to the Senate that take away discretion from judges when they take cases under advisement. “I think that is unethical  – I think it is an infringement on the independence of the judiciary.” He expects that political fight to continue.

Habeeb said once the budget is in place, “judges will fall into place that got bogged down in the partisanship on the Senate side.”

On the extra taxpayer dollars legislators will receive for the special session Del. Ware said, “Trust me it is more horrible for me to be [in Richmond] than the $200 per diem that I receive.” That brought laughter from attendees.

Sen. Smith advocated for doubling the salaries of legislators and expecting more from them in return. “Every citizen should have the opportunity to get out there and afford to campaign and win election.” His point was that there were qualified Virginian that could not afford to serve.