The Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce held their 27th Annual Southwest Virginia Legislative Breakfast and Forum Monday, Nov. 25, moderated by New River Valley Economic Development Alliance Executive Aric Bopp.
Forum members present were Senator Phillip Puckett, Thirty-eighth District; Del. Israel O’Quinn, Fifth District; Del. Elect Jeffrey Campbell, Sixth District and Del. Nick Rush, Seventh District. Twelfth District’s Del. Joseph Yost was unable to attend.
The event was also co-sponsored by the Chambers of Commerce of Bristol, Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Richlands, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, and Wise counties and areas. Also sponsoring were AEP, ATK, Verizon, Food City and New River Community College in whose Edwards Hall the event was held.
After a welcome and recognition of sponsors by Pulaski County Chamber President Robert Hiss, the pledge of allegiance led by Mary Holliday-Begley of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, and an invocation led by Pulaski County Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Sheffey, attendees enjoyed a breakfast buffet provided by Food City before the forum began.
The members each briefly introduced themselves to the audience before getting down to business. Among the questions were inquiries about standardized testing, incarceration and transportation. The first question, delivered by Bopp, concerned coal.
“Federal regulations on the coal and natural gas industry have negatively impacted employment in our region. What do you propose to do to assist our communities in replacing these jobs?” asked Bopp.
Puckett started, saying that he represents the coal-producing counties of Southwest Virginia. “The coal issue is not so much a state issue, but you have to get involved in that, because it affects the Commonwealth. It’s a huge issue for Southwest Virginia.” He pointed out that other related industries and businesses are dependent on coal as well, such as Norfolk Southern. “I contend we can’t do without coal right now, whether you like it or don’t like it, whether you think it’s clean or dirty. We need coal.”
O’Quinn echoed Puckett, saying, “In the Sixth Disctrict, there are no coal mines, but we’re home to a lot of people who supply coal mines and the coal industry, and it’s a huge deal.” He compared federal regulations to rules changing mid-game in sports, and said that the coal tax credit was important and allowed the industry to continue.
Campbell agreed with O’Quinn’s views on the coal tax credit and said carbon emissions standards regulations needed to change or the coal industry as we know it now would cease to exist. “Having said that, I’m a realist, and the regulations aren’t going to change tomorrow,” he said.
“Even if you don’t have coal mines in your area, these aren’t just coal mining jobs,” said Rush. He noted how the rising price of electricity has hurt economic development in the area and said of the Obama administration, “I don’t trust this administration to take care of coal.”
Rush then was first to answer the next question Bopp posed, “What is your position on standardized testing?”
“If any of you have a public school teacher in your family,” said Rush, who does, in the form of his mother, “you can’t go anywhere, Kroger, Food City, without being stopped. ‘Mrs. Rush, Mrs. Rush.’ So I’m the second most important person in my family. But the standardized testing, the SOLs, is something we’re going to have to address this year.” He said that he would like to see testing reduced so that students are not being taught for testing alone.
“I think the problem with standardized testing in Virginia is that is has become the central focus of the education system as a whole,” said Campbell, who agreed that changes were necessary.
“I think there will certainly be some reforms to the SOLs systems this year,” said O’Quinn, who said he was talking with groups trying to effect this. “We are spending entirely too much time and money testing. We’re creating a great generation of test takers. But big deal. How many times do you go to your office and your boss says, ‘OK, today we’re going to take a test’? You need real and practical skills that you can use in a professional setting.”
“The other piece of it that concerns me (about standardized testing) is how much money we put into it,” said Puckett, who said it was expensive and he would rather see the budget for it go towards an increase in teachers’ salaries. “The number one asset you have today in the classroom is the quality of the teachers,” Puckett said.
Bopp asked if the legislators would do anything to reduce jail time for nonviolent offenders and allow them to work off their sentences through public works projects, saving the system money.
“Do I plan to put in a bill to that effect? Probably no,” said O’Quinn. “I think that we do have crowding in prison. However, if we can find some way for them to repay their debt to society, and to make amends for whatever crime they’ve committed, I’m not against working that out in some form or fashion. I’m certainly not opposed to it.”
Puckett said he had considered introducing such a piece of legislation – “this is not a being soft on crime issue,” he said – while Rush said that “our biggest problem, and maybe the greatest problem in Southwest Virginia, I would like to say our young people, but it’s coming up even into people my age, is drugs.” He said that anecdotal evidence showed that most people he has worked with at his current non-legislative job have had a friend or relative die of a drug overdose.
O’Quinn said he considered the issue to be a practical matter, and that he was concerned with nonpayment of child support to custodial parents, and thought that “deadbeat” parents incarcerated should be required to work in a public works program that would directly benefit children.
Bopp mentioned the possibility of passenger rail service to Roanoke and possibly the rest of Southwestern Virginia. Also, he noted, Norfolk Southern and the Commonwealth had, in the recent past, embarked on a project called the Heartland Corridor, to link up three destinations – Norfolk, Cincinnati and Chicago – to improve freight shipping, which would have a site in Elliston. He then asked which project each candidate supported most.
Rush said he would most support the Heartland Corridor. “Passenger rail, I’m willing to look at,” he added. “I’d have to see the cost.”
Campbell, said he would make passenger rail a priority; O’Quinn agreed and said that it would be a boon to local tourism. Puckett said that he liked both options, and would love to be able to get on a train in Abingdon and ride to Richmond without getting on I-81. He also said that from an economic standpoint he felt that the Heartland Corridor would have the most positive economic impact, but would be willing to try and make both options happen.