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Legislators representing the Historic Triangle in the Virginia General Assembly shared their outlook for the upcoming session during a forum hosted by the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance.
The forum, which took place Wednesday at the Williamsburg Regional Library, included Sen. John Miller (D-Dist. 1), Sen. Tommy Norment (R-Dist. 3), Del. Monty Mason (D-Dist. 93), and Del. Brenda Pogge (R-Dist. 96).
All four legislators were re-elected to their offices after facing challengers during the 2015 general election.
The senators and delegates responded to questions prepared by the Chamber’s Government Affairs Committee as well as questions about Millennial engagement and disability support submitted by the audience.
The forum began with a question for Norment about the state budget. Gov. Terry McAuliffe presented his proposed budget for the 2016-2018 biennium to the General Assembly’s Joint Money Committees Dec. 17, which included a new investment of more than $1 billion in K-12 education.
Norment, the Senate Majority Leader, said the governor’s budget needs to be “retooled” and spending needs to be “reprioritized.”
Although the budget includes allocations to Historic Triangle initiatives, such as the 2019 Commemoration, with savings from the proposed Medicaid expansion, Norment said he would still oppose an expansion and added that the commonwealth already spends $461 million annually to maintain its existing Medicaid program.
“It’s a laudable program but it has an insatiable appetite for consuming dollars,” Norment said.
Pogge agreed, arguing that the cost of Medicaid expansion in other states has been higher than anticipated and expansion would be a financial burden the commonwealth could not sustain.
“We cannot afford it,” Pogge said. “[Medicaid] must be reformed before we can afford it.”
While Mason has advocated for Medicaid expansion, he said he understands the difficulty of getting it through the General Assembly. He said if the legislature does not expand Medicaid, it should at least look at supporting the budgets of local hospitals, which cover treatment costs for individuals without health insurance.
“I think it would be devastating to our many hospitals if we got rid of the Certificate of Public Need [health care cost containment program] and not expand Medicaid,” Mason said.
The legislators each touched on different transportation priorities for 2016. Norment said congestion on Interstate 64 makes widening the highway a major transportation need, but with federal highway dollars running low, the legislature will need to find other funding sources for the project.
One option for generating new highway dollars could be through tolling, an option Pogge said she would support for new roadway construction but not existing arteries.
Mason and Miller identified public transportation and expanding services at Patrick Henry Field, respectively, as transportation priorities that could serve the local workforce and boost the local economy.
“[Patrick Henry Field] is an economic engine, and we need to support it and expand it,” Miller said of the airport.
Norment and Pogge said their priority this session is “survival” – Norment, the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he will be studying the budget and aspiring to “provide affirmative, positive leadership to move Virginia forward,” while Pogge said she will be carrying 20 bills and serving on four committees in her busiest year yet.
Miller said education would remain his top priority, adding he will be looking to “do away” with verified credits for high-schoolers and propose a general education curriculum that transitions into college or workforce preparation, depending on a student’s focus.
Mason said he would continue to work on expanding educational and job opportunities for veterans and advocate for cybersecurity initiatives and economic innovations for his district, particularly winning the bid for an ion collider to be based at Jefferson Lab.
The 2016 legislative session begins Jan. 13.