WILLIAMSBURG — With lawmakers preparing for the General Assembly Session beginning Jan. 11, local representatives took part in the Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 Pre-Session Legislative Forum Tuesday morning.
Senators Tommy Norment and Monty Mason, and Delegates Mike Mullin, Amanda Batten and A.C. Cordoza fielded questions on the Chamber’s key issues at the Williamsburg Regional Library Theater. Senator Mamie Locke was scheduled to attend, but due to technical issues, was unable to take part.
Topics ranged from education, workforce development and retention, to recovery and economic strength ahead of future disasters (both weather and health-related), to technology infrastructure development and investment.
In even-numbered years, the session is held for 60 days. In odd-numbered years, the session is held for 30 days, although it is frequently extended. The consensus on stage was that due to the nature of the short session, as well as the upcoming election cycle, the focus would largely be on amendments to the two-year budget, with many legislators looking to take something home to their constituents.
“Normally, I’m very effusive in my optimism about what we can accomplish in the session of the General Assembly. But my enthusiasm is always tempered by the hour,” Norment explained. “I’m not setting my expectations too high or what the 2023 session of the General Assembly will accomplish.”
“There is such a close parity of the House of Delegates and in the Senate of Virginia. So I expect is going to be a lot of policy and enthusiasm as each party attempts to either retain or obtain a majority because it is an election cycle,” he added. ” Sometimes what we accomplished substantively is not as productive as a year where all 140 members of the General Assembly are not running.”
But, if time permitted, the legislators saw a number of issues that had support across the aisle, including mental health, workforce development and infrastructure.
“As Senator Norman and Senator Mason always like to say, only about three or four percent of what we do in General Assembly in a given year is actually partisan in nature. The rest of what you do is really regional or just the business of being able to run government,” Mullin said. “And so I got to have great hopes that we’re going to be able to get in and get out in a constitutionally prescribed period of time, give or take about five to six days. And we’ll be able to get the business of government done, as we always have.”
In addition to briefing the Chamber on the upcoming session, the forum also gave the legislators the opportunity to discuss some of the important issues facing the region in the wake of the pandemic and the subsequent economic recovery.
The legislators were generally in agreement on the need for the region to collaborate to address issues such as education, workforce development and housing to lure both workers and businesses to the region.
“I look at the Hampton Roads area and the challenges and opportunities that we face here. And, you know, we obviously have a mismatch in some areas as far as what employers and employees what employers are looking for work versus what the potential employee pool has to offer,” Batten explained.
“It’s expensive to live in Virginia. It is very difficult sometimes to find housing where you need and that’s that’s absolutely a challenge,” she added. “I think that it’s more than workforce development. There’s housing issues that go along with that, and I’m pleased that our governor did actually address that this year.”
They also agreed that diversification away from tourism-centric economy would help lessen the impact of another pandemic-like disaster.
“One of our top economic drivers obviously is tourism. But we saw how that played out when the pandemic struck. We saw that basically the top employer in our area no longer could offer those jobs and it devastated our economy and it really opened certainly my eyes but I think everyone else has to see that we need to look beyond that,” Batten said.
Senator Mason spoke on transportation issues the benefit both tourism and commercial industry, noting in particular, the Skiffes Creek Connector that redirects commercial traffic away from residential areas, as well as other transportation issues.
“When we finish this transportation hub in Newport News, we have got to get the third train to the peninsula on a daily basis,” he said. “You need to be able to wake up here or in Newport News, get on the train, go to Washington D.C., conduct a day of business and turn around and come back and sleep in your bed at night.”
He also spoke to the status of the Interstate 64 Widening Project. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for the first of three segments of the project on Dec. 16., with the first segment stretching from mile marker 205 in Bottoms Bridge to mile marker 215.6, slightly more than a mile east of Courthouse Road (Exit 214) in New Kent County.
Virginia is seeking federal money to support the project to the tune of $150 million, however, in what local officials hope is only a first pass, the U.S. Department of Transportation has only announced that $25 million from the new Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program.
“We have to stand firm and make sure we continue to apply revenue, particularly in light of what we see in the short term,” he said. “There’s a little less money from the federal government than we hoped for, or than we anticipate, but that project is moving. It’s going to go ahead and hopefully you’ll start seeing work done in middle of next year.”
Speaking again of the region working together, Mason noted the collaborative effort to support any possible expansion of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) in Newport News.
“Thanks to every community in southeastern Virginia, including in their legislative package, the request to make sure that we support Jefferson last and any possible expansion,” he said. “So there’s money the government put money in the budget to say if a project comes along from the Department of Energy, we will support it in order to have it located at Jefferson Labs in Newport News. That is one of the biggest jewels in Virginia, certainly southeastern Virginia, that almost nobody knows anything about.”
Cordoza, a member of the Communications, Technology and Innovation Committee, anticipates bipartisan support for the technology industry.
“We get a lot of microprocessors from other countries. Why are we doing that? We have all the land here, we have all the resources, we can do that here,” he said. “Nothing runs in our current age without these processors… So we agree on both sides and both chambers that needs to happen here and it’s a priority because it’s necessary. We shouldn’t be outsourcing it when we can do it here.”
Other topics included broadband deployment, understanding the lessons of the pandemic and how to apply them to both potential manmade and natural disasters, public safety, healthcare, and how to support the tourism industry.
The Virginia General Assembly 2023 session begins at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 11.