EDINBURGH — Shenandoah County legislative representatives say working with Senate Democrats to pass a budget is their goal when they return to Richmond on Monday for the special session of the General Assembly.
House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and State Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, shared their plans at the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast at Rutz’s BBQ and Catering in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning.
“We really haven’t made any progress since we left,” Gilbert said of budget negotiations that were unfinished when the regular session ended March 12 without an approved two-year spending plan.
Obenshain said a difference of about $3 billion stalled budget negotiations. He said House Republicans, who hold a 52-48 majority, want to pass about $5 billion in tax relief. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, who hold a 21-19 majority — with Republican Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears holding a deciding vote — want to pass about $2 billion in tax relief, he said. declared.
Given Virginia’s $16.7 billion surplus, Obenshain said the Democrats’ proposal was “stingy.” He said Republicans want to double the standard tax deduction, cut the gas tax and cut the food tax. He said the Republican proposal could allow a taxpayer to recoup $1,000 of the gas tax cut and $2,000 of the grocery tax cut.
“I think those are things worth fighting for in Richmond,” Obenshain said.
A budget must be adopted before 1 July. If there are delays, Gilbert noted, local governments are affected in their planning.
Gilbert also called the session a success, according to House Republican records, with the passage of tax relief measures, giving parents more control in schools and reversing a renewable energy policy that would have cost $800 to customers.
Gilbert also noted that the House budget proposal called for around $30 million to purchase the former Norfolk Southern Railway for a Rails to Trails cycleway that would connect Broadway to Front Royal.
Obenshain, who serves as co-chairman of the Republican Caucus, said the second half of the legislative session was light on him as the bills he sought met an “early demise” in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
More funds for education and increased salaries for teachers and law enforcement personnel have been set aside, Obenshain said.
Cary Nelson of gas supplier HN Funkhouser & Co. asked what was done with a tax levied on Shenandoah County residents for Interstate 81 improvements.
“Obviously transportation is a big issue as trucks go up and down 81 and people try to move around,” Nelson said.
Gilbert, who said he doesn’t support the tax because it also applies to localities like Warren and Page counties that don’t include parts of Interstate 81, said the funds were used to things like improvements on and off the shoulder straps. But the goal was never to fund big projects like lane widening, Gilbert noted.
Obenshain noted that other projects are underway, such as adding a third lane in Harrisonburg and improvements to the I-81/66 interchange.
Kim Woodwell of the Alliance for Shenandoah County asked if incentives for mid-sized solar projects, such as rooftop panels or projects covering a smaller area, could be explored instead of allowing larger solar farms.
Gilbert noted that the legislation of Del. Michael Webert, who represents parts of Warren County, makes it harder to install large projects because it requires an environmental impact mitigation plan. Woodwell said she supports such legislation.
Democratic Shenandoah County Chairman Brad Skipper asked about campaign finance reform, to which Obenshain responded by saying it needed to be done with care.
“…We’re starting to limit contributions, and people are finding creative ways to get that money into the same place without the same kind of transparency that we’re supposed to have in Virginia,” Obenshain said. “I am all for free, open and fair elections and for transparency. Anything that undermines that is asking for trouble.”
Other topics raised by participants included state funding to offset potential local tax increases; increase land ready for business; make public the prices of propane competitors and examine the gas prices set by the oil companies.
The breakfast ended with Gilbert praising Governor Glenn Youngkin’s work and willingness to “ruffle feathers.” Obenshain said Virginians will be able to choose next year to stick with Youngkin’s “bold” changes since elections for both the House of Delegates and the state Senate will be held in November 2023.
Gilbert also praised the work of Obenshain, who will no longer represent Shenandoah County after the 2023 election as new legislative districts were established to accommodate census changes. His new district will be more centered around Harrisonburg, and a new state senate district will include Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick and Clarke counties.
“I have no better partner in Richmond than my senator,” Gilbert said. “Mark has been a fantastic partner for me, an incredible representative for all of you.”