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Norment, Saslaw make cases for control of state Senate during CNU debate

Dave Ress
Contact Reporterdress@dailypress.com
Norment, Saslaw agree on plenty, except for who should be majority leader of the Va state Senate

The two men contending for one of the most powerful positions in Virginia — majority leader of the state Senate — agree on a lot of things, from saying that reversing cuts in K-12 education funds will take time to noting the state can do little to address the challenge of rising sea levels in Hampton Roads.

And both state Sen Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment Jr., R-James City County, and state Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, agreed they weren't bothered by a recent state Supreme Court ruling that guts a key part of state law protecting citizen's right to know.

Each was arguing for why his party deserved to win control of the state Senate in the November election at a debate sponsored by Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Public Policy.

And in the background for both were politicians who aren't in the state Senate at all: Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose ability to push his programs could vanish if Norment's Republicans retain control, and the members of the overwhelming Republican majority in the House of Delegates who aren't at all sympathetic to key Democratic goals.

"The difference is governance," Norment said. "In 2014, for 104 days, (Senate Democrats) held the budget hostage to try to get the House of Delegates to capitulate on one specific issue."

Norment said that same kind of standoff was inevitable if the Democrats win control of the Senate.

"Since when has the Grand Old Party ever done a ... thing for higher education, for K-12," Saslaw fired back.

The Senate is currently split 21 to 19 in favor of the Republicans. If Democrats gain one seat, they can take control of the body because Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, can cast tie-breaking votes.

The issue behind the budget standoff last year was Medicaid expansion, which almost all the General Assembly Republicans opposed and which McAuliffe and the Democrats cast as one of their top priorities.

Saslaw continued arguing for expansion, saying it would bring billions of federal dollars a year into the state to pay for health care for lower income Virginians.

"It is fiscally irresponsible to reject the money; it's your money, it's your money," Saslaw said.

Norment said other states have found the numbers of people enrolling and the costs of the program were running far ahead of projections.

Those were increases that would fall in part on the state, he said.

"Virginia has been recognized under Democratic and Republican governors as fiscally responsible," Norment said. "We are going to continue to be fiscally responsible."

When Wason Center director Quentin Kidd, moderating the debate, commented that there seemed to be no backup plan to ease the financial stress on Virginia hospitals from the cost of continuing to provide care to the indigent, even if they are not paid, neither senator disagreed.

Both said the finances of rural hospitals would be a major concern of the General Assembly. Both agreed they had no immediate answer.

The two squabbled over how much credit McAuliffe deserved for a series of recent company relocations and expansions, with Norment noting that many of those projects had been in the pipeline for years, while Saslaw said McAuliffe's salesmanship was what closed the deals.

They disagreed on gun control, as well — even though Norment has drawn heat from his caucus by not going along with the successful move to end Virginia's one-gun-a-month limits.

Saslaw blasted Republican efforts that killed a bill holding parents liable for damages caused by a child using a gun, citing a story about a 4-year-old who shot and killed an adult.

"A 4-year-old, are you kidding me, you call that gun control?" Saslaw said.

Norment said the problem with the bill was that it created a new standard for suing people unlike anything else in state law.

Asked about a recent Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study showing that per pupil spending in the state was down 7 percent since the recession, both men said they were committed to increasing funding.

Both said it would take more time, and that tax increases to speed the process up were non-starters.

And both agreed that the climate in Richmond was increasingly divisive — and not just in the partisan wars.

"I think there has been an ideological, political division both in the Republican and the Democratic party which has made each of our jobs more difficult," Norment said,

"It's become really divisive," Saslaw agreed.

At the end of the debate, however, the two men hugged and patted each other on the back.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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