Just a day after the raucous Republican presidential debate, Thursday night's candidate forum for the 1st District State Senate seat was a friendlier affair.
Republican challenger Mark Matney and incumbent Democratic Sen. John Miller cast aside personal jabs to discuss policy and issues that impact voters in a convivial forum moderated by John Moorman at Williamsburg Library.
“I know looking at that stage some of you are thinking, as I am, ‘thank goodness there are only two candidates up there,’” joked Linda Rice, president of the League of Women Voters of the Williamsburg Area, before introducing Moorman.
The candidates answered questions from Moorman, former director of the library, as well as questions submitted by the 50 to 70 attendees. The League of Women Voters vetted the questions before the topics were addressed by Moorman.
The lone back-and-forth between the candidates was when Matney noted that “after eight years in office, Sen. Miller has only managed to pass about one bill in five.”
“It's not about the quantity of the bills you get passed, but the quality,” Miller responded. “It's not a contest where you are aiming for 100 percent. Sometimes you put a bill in just to get the conversation started so that something can be done two or three years down the line.”
That was the case with a bill Miller got passed this year to reduced the number of Standards of Learning Virginia students have to take from 34 to 29, said the senator who has held the seat since 2007.
“We still need to reduce that to only the 17 that are required by the federal government,” he said. “We are teaching too much to the test and raising a generation of children who are good at memorizing facts but bad at critical thinking. They can tell you the date we went to the moon, but not why we went to the moon.”
The candidates were in agreement on some issues, including the need to improve the Peninsula’s transportation.
“There are not just economic development implications there are public safety concerns as well,” said Matney, a Newport News-based DWI attorney.
He said the state should pursue abandoned Route 460 improvements and pursue both an expansion of the Hampton Roads bridge-tunnel and a third crossing option by entering into public-private partnerships.
Miller disagreed on the method.
“The problem with the PPPs is - well I can give you two examples, Route 460 and the Midtown Tunnel - the Commonwealth was taken to the cleaners on both those deals,” he said. “Transportation is a core government responsibility and we need to find a way to fund it, without throwing a lot of money at private companies.”
However, both candidates said they opposed increasing the state's gas tax to raise revenue.
“I put in a bill to raise the gas tax when we were looking at the transportation package. I'd have preferred to do it that way, but we decided to put the tax on at the wholesale level. So we funded that, there's no need to increase the gas tax now,” Miller said.
Matney and Miller agreed the increasing availability of fuel-efficient, hybrid and electric cars will decrease the dependability of gas tax revenues.
“I wouldn't ever want to totally rule out a tax because you never know what might happen,” Matney said. “But given that the state just had a very large tax increase for transportation, I don't think it would be appropriate at this time.”
The candidates also differed on redistricting reform.
“In a Utopia we'd have non-partisan redistricting,” Matney said. “But all the options I've seen, the commissioners are appointed by people who are partisan. So I can't seen how we can get partisanship out of it.”
“I'm all for Utopia,” Miller responded. “I introduced a bill this year and I'll introduce a bill next year to create an independent redistricting commission. We've got to take these decision out of the hands of the politicians who have a vested interest in where the lines are drawn.'
The two candidates also disagree about charter schools.
“I would like to see Virginia go to a total choice school model,” Matney said. “I think competition and incentive-based pay for teachers would improve our public schools.”
“We already have charter schools in Virginia,” Miller said. “And I support that as long as they are under the control of the local school division.”
Thursday's event was the first of three General Assembly forums to be hosted by the League of Women Voters. Candidates for the 96th District House of Delegates seat will meet Oct. 21 at the James City County Library. Candidates for the 93rd District House of Delegates seat will meet Oct. 29 at the Williamsburg Library.
Vaughan can be reached at (757)345-2343.