The state of the still-unfinalized state budget and the recently passed Historic Triangle sales tax bill were among the most burning questions city residents had for Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, during their town hall discussion Tuesday evening at the Stryker Center.
About 35 residents were in attendance for the town hall discussion, with questions ranging from gun safety in schools to infrastructure concerns.
Local business owner Steve Richter says he has to travel between Williamsburg and Norfolk to work at his start-up company. He asked if there was anything the state could do to ease the traffic in the tunnels on Interstate 64.
“We started here in Williamsburg at the Launchpad, and out of the four companies that started in the Launchpad three of us left because nobody came. You’ve got big companies all over the place, and nobody came to see us, there was nothing there,” said Richter. “We are now going to Norfolk to ODU’s innovation center, but there’s a geographic problem getting there.”
Mullin and Mason said the state’s budget has to be finalized before they’re able to give definite answers about upcoming infrastructure spending plans. The budget’s passage was stalled after some gridlock between the Senate and the House of Delegates over the inclusion of a Medicaid expansion plan during their regular session.
Both legislators agree that, although Republican members of the state Senate have remained steadfast in their opposition to Medicaid expansion, the dramatic shift in the the House of Delegates saw after Democrats won 15 seats in last November’s election gives them hope.
“It is a sea change to be able to see 15 new Democratic members in the House of Delegates,” Mullin said. “That really changed the tenor and the nature of the debate in the House of Delegates.”
Mason and Mullin said a Medicaid expansion plan would provide health care to some 430,000 Virginians for the first time, creating a state-wide solution that residents can depend on despite the national conversation around the Affordable Care Act.
“Whatever you think about the Affordable Care Act, that conversations way over here. It needs work, it needs to continue to be tweaked,” Mason said. “We’re simply talking about having the ability to go to a doctor when you’re sick and get antibiotics. At this point, our emergency rooms are overrun by people who have no healthcare, so they wait for weeks for a standard illness that could’ve been taken care of in week one with an antibiotic.”
Both legislators also addressed Senate Bill 942, which would fund tourism efforts in the region by creating a 1 percent sales tax increase in Williamsburg, James City and York counties. At a recent City Council meeting, Williamsburg finance director Barbara Dameron estimated the city would generate $4.7 million in revenue for its tourism fund if the resolution is accepted by City Council.
Mason voted in support of the resolution, and he said the additional funds will help overhaul the region’s tourism marketing strategy.
“We will almost triple the amount of money that we have to spend to try to attract people here,” Mason said. “That was the thought process, because after what I’ve seen in seven or eight years, the state is not ponying up to the level that we need and it’s particularly timely in advance of 2019, because we hope that we’ll have 250,000 to 500,000 additional people coming.”
Mullin voted against both versions of the sales tax bill, but he also spoke in support of the resolution, saying it will foster a regional approach to growing the local economy.
“Our economy has three pillars here on the Peninsula: first is the federal government and federal government employees, then we also have a robust manufacturing community centered around the shipyard, and third is tourism,” Mullin said. “There’s no difference between where we are in terms of how those communities are affected by those three industries. If we’re going to start talking about these things, we have to get out of those silos."
The General Assembly will reconvene for special session on May 14 to hash out a budget sometime before a July 1 deadline.
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.