By JESSICA WETZLER
Daily News-Record 12/5/19
With Democrats controlling the General Assembly when it convenes next month, Valley lawmakers discussed topics of interest as the new minority during Tuesday’s pre-legislative breakfast at James Madison University.
Hosted by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, the annual event featured a look into the upcoming session by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Delegate-elect Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater.
“We live in interesting times,” said Frank Tamberrino, president of the chamber.
During the Nov. 5 election, Democrats took six seats in the House of Delegates and two in the Senate. With Democrats already holding the governor’s office, Republicans face a shift in the power dynamic.
“We have had a great delegation in Richmond, and it is just like a sports team. We have to switch them out,” Tamberrino said.
Of the Valley legislators who represent Rockingham County, Wilt and Runion, along with Dels. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, and Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, have never been in the minority, as Republicans had controlled the House since 2000.
“It is an unknown,” Wilt said.
Being in the minority, however, is something Hanger and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, have experience with.
Wilt said Hanger’s experience will be an advantage.
“I have a lot of value in that,” Wilt said.
As of Tuesday, Hanger remains co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the budget.
“I have not given up my gavel yet,” Hanger said. “We are cautiously optimistic that we will have a conservative budget.”
Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to submit his first budget proposal since taking office in the next week.
Despite the uncertainty of the 2020 General Assembly session, Hanger said he does not expect repeal of the “right-to-work” law, which prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that would require workers to pay dues or fees to the union that represents them.
“There is clearly not enough votes in the Senate to overturn right-to-work,” Hanger said. “The governor’s announcement was a public announcement that it shouldn’t happen. [Right-to-work] is a positive thing.”
Other areas of interest for the senator include addressing gerrymandering, ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and expanding tax authority for counties.
In the House, Wilt said he will focus on working across the aisle to address issues raised by his constituents.
“Since my time in the General Assembly, I have tried to be very measured with issues and have never bashed with people because they were a Democrat,” Wilt said. “I fully anticipate to have those conversations and treat people decently. I am ready to work.”
Wilt serves on the Interstate 81 committee that provides recommendations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board regarding the I-81 corridor improvement plan.
With the change of leadership in the General Assembly, Wilt says a change in leadership will also come to the I-81 committee.
“I like to think I will stay on the committee I am on, but time will tell,” Wilt said.
The main questions the committee is asked involve how projects will be paid for and when improvements can be expected to be seen.
Wilt said “it is going to be a couple of years” before improvements are seen, and he is in support of borrowing as projects move along to fund the $2.2 billion in proposed improvements.
Wilt said he would not support any effort to unwind funding as several counties have passed resolutions in opposition to the regional fuel tax due to their distance from I-81.
“We all benefit [from I-81] from an economically standpoint,” Wilt said.
For freshman delegate Runion, the upcoming session will be a learning experience.
“This is my first time on this side of the table,” said Runion, who was elected last month to succeed Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave. “It’s all new.”
Since the election, Runion said he has been meeting with Landes on a regular basis, as well as attending training sessions in Richmond.
His focus areas will be bringing broadband to the Valley, addressing mental health and supporting disability waivers.
“The most important legislative issue I have is to listen,” Runion said. “I want to know what you have to say.”
The 2020 General Assembly session starts Jan. 8.