Valley Legislators Reflect On ‘Circus’ Of A Session

By JESSICA WETZLER
Daily News-Record  4/9/19
 
HARRISONBURG — Scandals, taxes and Interstate 81 were the topics of interest during Monday’s post-legislative breakfast at Spotswood Country Club.
Hosted by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, the event featured an overview of the 2019 General Assembly session by Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, along with Dels. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave.
“The session was unlike any circus I’ve ever been to this year,” Obenshain said. “It was surreal.”
In the middle of the session, a photo on Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, showing two people: one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. Northam eventually denied being in the photo but admitted to dressing in blackface at a party in the 1980s.
Days later, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting two women. Fairfax denies the allegations, saying the encounters in 2000 and 2004 were consensual, but he has called for law enforcement to investigate the claims.
Last but not least, Attorney General Mark Herring came forward saying he had also dressed in blackface during a college party in 1980.
The scandal engulfing Virginia’s Democratic executive members became a focus of national media outlets, with all three facing calls to resign by Republicans and members of their own party.
“It was like we were on the set of a movie,” Obenshain said. “The media descended on Richmond in swarms. It put Virginia in a light I’d rather not be in, and we are going to continue to experience some of the fallout of that I think for a little while.”
For Landes, the events from February are here to stay for awhile.
“Especially our lieutenant governor, who is facing some really serious charges against him,” Landes said. “Those two ladies want to be heard, and from my standpoint, I think they need to have that opportunity.”
Bipartisan efforts were attempted during the reconvened veto session last week to have the women testify before the General Assembly, but Democrats failed to move forward.
“With all of that aside, we were able to accomplish a lot,” Landes said.
 
I-81
Obenshain and Landes put forward identical bills to identify funding for the $2.2 billion improvements to I-81 recommended by a 2018 study Obenshain sponsored in the previous session.
What started as tolling turned into a series of taxes and fee hikes that passed the General Assembly during the veto session Wednesday.
“Last year I carried legislation to study how we were going to address the growing, long-standing crisis involving safety and those traveling on Interstate 81,” Obenshain said. “We developed a strong consensus that Interstate 81 and the corridor were essential to our commerce in Virginia and essential to the safety of people living along the corridor.”
Obenshain, Landes and Hanger voted against the legislation, including a regional fuel tax, a statewide diesel tax, a higher road tax on heavy trucks and an increase in registration fees for heavy trucks.
Obenshain, who was opposed to the regional gas tax, said he thought it was unfair to burden the people living along I-81 who use the roadway.
“I don’t like [the bill], but the package passed and we are going to see within the next year some initial work begin on the interstate,” Obenshain said.
Landes was also opposed to the new rendition of the bill.
“I was more inclined to support the original version that we had, but you get what you can take and I think that’s what happened in this case,” Landes said.
Wilt was the lone Valley legislator to vote in favor of the bill.
“I am proud of what was done there; I was proud to support that,” Wilt said. “It’s going to be good for our region.”
That being the case, Wilt said to not expect an immediate fix.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is a long-term development that we have to let move forward,” Wilt said.
 
Areas Of Interest
With one session over, work for the next session begins.
For Wilt, this is the time of the year to start investigating issues to address in the 2020 session, if re-elected in November’s election that will see all seats in the House of Delegates and Senate on the ballot.
“Regardless of what happens, you hired us to represent you,” Wilt said.
Wilt sponsored HB2443 that would have allowed employers to get insurance for employees through MEWA, a multiple employer welfare arrangement.
“We know what health insurance is doing in our businesses, especially in small business, and what those premium costs are doing,” Wilt said. “I know a lot of small business that don’t even have coverage — they can’t afford it.”
Northam made amendments to the bill, which were ultimately rejected by the House in a 34-64 vote.
Although Wilt did not sponsor any legislation regarding water improvement, he said it is an area that needs addressing.
“The stakes are getting higher as far as water improvement,” Wilt said. “It’s our hope that we can look more on the agriculture side.”
Wilt referred to an article published by the Daily News-Record on Friday reporting on a recent study indicating high pollution in local waterways due to livestock in streams.
One of the groups behind the study, the Environmental Integrity Project, called for all farms to be required to put up fencing to keep livestock out of streams and rivers. Its study found that only 1 in 5 farmers in Rockingham and Augusta counties engage in the voluntary practice.
“I thought that was pretty telling, and that’s what I’ve been saying to folks that this is what’s coming if you don’t keep your eyes open,” Wilt said. “But don’t be fooled, the Chesapeake Bay is cleaner than it’s been in 40 years. It’s a huge success story.”
Hanger, who worked on the biennial budget, helped secure funding for agriculture in Virginia.
“We were able to put a significant amount of money in incentives for the agriculture community,” Hanger said. “The agriculture community in Rockingham and Augusta is doing a great job already. We are way ahead of Pennsylvania and we are actually ahead of Maryland now in terms of what we have been doing in the community. The Chesapeake Bay is in the best shape that it’s been in since records have been kept.”
Hanger closed the discussion by addressing last year’s Medicaid expansion. Hanger delivered one of the key votes to expanding the federal-state health program in Virginia through the Affordable Care Act after Republicans had successfully blocked it for years.
“It’s been one of those areas where I stepped way out last spring in appropriating the budget, and I can report to you that it’s working,” Hanger said. “Right now, we have already enrolled about 250,000 people who now have access to affordable health care. Almost 2,000 in Rockingham County from today’s date and about 1,600 in Harrisonburg.”
 
Landes Send-Off
Landes announced March 5 that he would not seek re-election to the 25th House District seat.
Instead, he will be running for the Augusta County Clerk of Circuit Court position that was recently made available when Carol Brydge, Augusta County Circuit Court clerk, announced her retirement, effective April 1.
“I’m not retiring; I’m just looking for another opportunity that’s just centered in Augusta County,” Landes said.
Landes’ seat is being sought by three Republicans and two Democrats.
Chris Runion of Bridgewater, Marshall Pattie of Augusta County and Richard Fox of Albemarle County will face off in a firehouse primary on April 27 to decide the Republican nominee.
Lauren Thompson of Albemarle County and Jenni Kitchen of Augusta County are vying for the Democratic nomination for the seat. The Democratic nominee will be decided in a primary on June 11.
Legislators took a moment to recognize Landes for his work and service over the last 20 years.
“Steve has been a tireless advocate for the Shenandoah Valley for agriculture and for education,” Obenshain said. “He’s been a great partner. He’s been a great public servant and somebody who has put the interest of the commonwealth at his own interest.”
Landes leaves the General Assembly after advocating for a 5% teacher pay raise that set aside $85 million in the amended budget.
Landes also sponsored legislation requiring school counselors to spend 80% of their time in direct counseling with students, and a bill requiring a public hearing be held at an institution of higher learning prior to a vote to increase tuition fees.
Landes made one final push for voters to keep current legislators in office.
“You got, in the Rockingham-Harrisonburg area, great legislators who have done a great job and are up for re-election this year,” Landes said. “You can’t lose, one, the seniority that they have obtained over the years, but, two, the knowledge they have gained and the fact that they all get things done.”