ABINGDON, Va. — Gambling bills, the state budget, the opioid crisis and funding education were the topics touched on by Southwest Virginia lawmakers during a legislative breakfast Dec. 3 in Abingdon.
About 250 people gathered at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center for the forum previewing the upcoming session of the General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 9. The forum, hosted by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, featured Dels. Terry Kilgore, James Morefield, Israel O’Quinn, Todd Pillion and state Sen. Ben Chafin.
Kilgore, R-Gate City, said his No. 1 topic will be the state budget.
“I think that’s going to be the overriding concern this year as we move forward through this session,” he said. “We thought we were doing real well until a miscalculation of about $400 million occurred on some Medicaid/Medicare dollars as it relates to nursing homes.”
Pillion, R-Abingdon, said expanding Interstate 81 is a top priority for him. He said the interstate was not built for its current traffic and that the General Assembly will definitely talk about it and how to fund expansion.
O’Quinn, R-Bristol, said there will be a lot of talk about taxes and how the commonwealth can conform to federal tax code.
Another issue that has been the talk of Bristol will be gaming legislation. Last week, O’Quinn and Sen. Bill Carrico announced they will carry legislation that would let Bristol, Virginia, residents decide via a referendum whether they want the $150 million Bristol Resort and Casino. The project was announced in September by two Bristol businessmen who hope to get approval to locate the casino in the vacant Bristol Mall.
“Obviously, you’ve got the Bristol Resort and Casino issue,” O’Quinn said. “But that’s going to be one of probably two dozen different gaming bills that you’re going to see. You’ve got casinos, you’ve got sports betting, you have all these things all of the sudden. It’s like the dam has broken, and all of the sudden issues that haven’t been talked about in several years are certainly going to get a hearing this year.”
Morefield, R-Tazewell, said plowing through the partisan divide to work together will be the most important issue for him, while Chafin, R-Hansonville, said reforming taxes will be an important topic.
Legislators were asked what the state can do to further combat the opioid crisis gripping the region. Pillion said the state needs to address the underlying issues that lead to addiction.
“The best way to get an addict to recover is to give them a job,” he said. “That’s what we have to do.”
He added that Virginia needs to properly fund addiction recovery services and work on legislation that would help addicts who have “barrier crimes” on their record get jobs. Pillion said barrier crimes are those that prevent recovered addicts from obtaining gainful employment. He said he will work on legislation that would open up the job market to those who committed a crime and paid their debt to society.
Chafin said the legislature is taking a look at what works and help those programs by providing funding.
O’Quinn said legislation approved in the last couple of years has helped with the opioid crisis, but the commonwealth has had to dig out of a deep hole. But the delegate said he thinks the state is headed in the right direction.
Legislators then tackled the issue of how to provide funding for K-12 schools in Southwest Virginia when the population is declining.
O’Quinn said providing education is vital.
“If we can’t get education right, I don’t know how we can expect to get much else right,” he said. “When you’re turning out kids who spent 13 years in a school system, and we fail at that, our chances of success drop exponentially.”
He said he worked on legislation that helped schools who lost a certain percentage of students during a calendar year by providing supplemental funding. Other ideas he mentioned to help secure funding for schools were redirecting money made by the Virginia lottery back into schools and putting advertisements on school buses.
A stronger economy would stop the enrollment loss problem by providing jobs that keep people in Southwest Virginia, O’Quinn said.
Chafin said students in the region have some of the highest test scores in the state. But the area does not do a good enough job promoting itself, he added.
“We ought to be putting together a message and letting people know, ‘You know what, we’re raising smart kids here.’ We got a good education system here, and we’re open for business,” he said. “That’s what we ought to be telling people. I’m going to be pushing that.”