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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce Holds Legislative Forum

Local legislators participated in a pre-session forum with the Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. (Christopher Six/WYDaily)

WILLIAMSBURG — The Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce held its 2024 Pre-Session Legislative Forum Wednesday at the Williamsburg Regional Library Theater.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, Sen.-elect Danny Diggs, Delegates Amanda Batten and A.C. Cordoza, and Del.-elect Chad Green attended. The forum was moderated by Mindy Carlin of Access Point Public Affairs and presented by Principle Advantage Government Relations Group.

Topics covered during the forum focused on the Chamber’s 2024 Legislative Priorities set by its members and based on their responses to its 2023-2024 Legislative Survey, as well as some submitted questions.

The stage looked markedly different from last year’s forum, as retirements and redistricting have changed the size and composition of the delegation, which is down to five members from six, and now, all Republican. Gone were Senators Tommy Norment, who retired, and Monty Mason, who lost his reelection bid in November, as well as Del. Mike Mullin, who chose not to run.

With a divided government, all of the members anticipate the budget will dominate the General Assembly session.

“This legislative cycle, I think, is going to be interesting,” said McDougle. “We have divided government in Virginia which creates opportunities, and it creates challenges. As we work through this, we’re going to get to feeling out how we can take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the challenges, but I would say the path at this point is not terribly clear. There are a number of issues that will be large and in the public arena. A lot of those will be surrounding the budget.”

McDougle cautioned while the economy currently appears healthy, he is concerned with what he sees coming in the third and fourth quarters. He noted there has already been a significant impact in cost drivers like social nets, which have cut into the ability to impact K-12 education, law enforcement, higher education and transportation. McDougle, named senate minority leader in November, anticipates a “vigorous” debate over how to fund those needs.

Still, all members reassured the audience that much of their work is bipartisan, and they look forward to working with their colleagues across the aisle.

“I look forward to getting past the 5% of controversial issues that divide us, and getting to work on the other 95% of those issues that affect businesses and the community and moving things forward,” said Diggs. “So I look forward to being able to reach across the aisle and really getting things done.”

Batten said the many new faces raise questions as to how much cross-aisle collaboration might be seen in the 2024 session.

“I think one of the biggest wildcards is that we have so many new members of the General Assembly this year. These are folks who sort of don’t know the protocols that we have,” she said. “It will be very interesting to see how they work, if they work across the aisle, and just to make sure that they understand the culture of collaboration that we actually have to pursue in order to implement good policy here in Virginia.”

Green noted when he attended his orientation session, there were 34 new members of the General Assembly. But change has had another impact — more power rests in Hampton Roads than in the past, something Cordoza feels bodes well for the region.

“We have the most Hampton Roads Senate leadership, probably ever. A lot of the fights up there that everyone sees are mainly red versus blue ideological fights, and like my colleague said, that’s only about 5%,” explained Cordoza. “The real fight is regions. It’s Northern Virginia versus Hampton Roads versus central west and southwest. That’s what the real fight is out there. It’s all about the budget, and who gets the most slice of that pie.”

With the House and Senate both in the hands of Democrats, who tend to oppose Virginia’s right-to-work law, many in the delegation spoke to their belief that the Commonwealth keep that status.

“I think right to work is key to private business. I also think we made a mistake by allowing collective bargaining for government entities … I think that is not the direction we should be going in Virginia,” said McDougle. “We will have a discussion this year about right to work, and I think it’ll be very close votes in the House and Senate as they move through the process.”

“I do think that you’ll see legislation move forward,” he added. “If it did make it to the governor’s desk, the governor would veto it. But make no mistake, if an individual votes for that type of legislation this year, if there’s ever a change in the executive branch, and we have elections very frequently in Virginia, then it could change the impact.”

Other topics discussed included addressing teacher losses and problematic literacy rates, workforce development, environmental concerns, affordable housing, mental health, transportation and the role of the state in local affairs. The delegation agreed most are issues where they shared common ground with their colleagues in Richmond, regardless of party.

“I was not elected as a partisan, to go up to Richmond and be a Republican partisan,” said Green. “I was elected as the delegate, to go up there and get some common sense things done, and that’s what I’ll do. I’ll serve the people, we’ll move the ball forward, and we’ll get things done, and we’ll make this area the best area to live, work, and educate your kids.”

The 60-day 2024 legislative session convenes Jan. 10.

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