By Jeb Inge
Politicians return to Richmond on Wednesday for a 45-day General Assembly session featuring a menu of hot-button issues.
In addition to tackling key issues facing the commonwealth, the 45-day session will serve as the staging ground for the 2013 election season, which features races for all three statewide offices, and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.
Virginia will be out of transportation funding by 2017, a fact made worse considering Virginia has some of the nation's worst traffic congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Transportation has long been a political black hole in Virginia. Democrats and Republicans have agreed on the need for transportation funding, but have not yielded on its source. Republicans largely advocate taking funds from the general fund, with Democrats calling for additional revenues.
Gov. Bob McDonnell announced Tuesday his "Virginia's Road to the Future," a $3.1 billion transportation overhaul of Virginia's highways, rail and transit systems. The plan calls for an elimination of the gas tax and provides $1.8 billion more in funding for highway construction over the next five years. To offset the elimination of the gas tax, McDonnell's plan proposes an 0.8 percent hike in the state sales tax.
If approved, Virginia would be the first state in the country to end the gas tax.
Currently, Virginia plans to bankroll a $1.4 billion dollar toll road, which would run parallel to U.S. 460 from Petersburg to Suffolk. It has been estimated that the toll road would carry roughly 5,000-6,000 vehicles a day, much less than the 9,200-17,000 vehicles on U.S. 460 each day.
Despite low traffic projections, proponents of the road see it as a necessary infrastructure addition to projected growth at the Port of Virginia, which they believe will see a boon in traffic following the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014.
Of the $1.4 billion needed for the project, the commonwealth is on the hook for between $930 million and $1.2 billion.
Other major transportation projects include the I-95 express lanes, the Elizabeth River Tunnels Project in Norfolk and Portsmouth, and the 495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia. Virginia's contribution to the projects is $71 million, $408 million and $409 million respectively.
All four of the projects are public-private partnerships, which means the state splits the cost with private companies. All four will be toll roads.
Southside Virginia is home to the largest uranium deposit in the United States, but a 30-year ban has left the deposit untouched. Now, legislators must decide whether to continue that ban, or allow the mining of the deposit, which is estimated to be worth $10 billion dollars.
Supporters of uranium mining argue its potential as an economic powerhouse for a region of Virginia in need.
The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy this week came out in favor of lifting the ban after hearing the results of a December study conducted by the Uranium Working Group. The commission was created by McDonnell to study the kind of regulatory framework that would be necessary if legislators decide to lift the moratorium.
Del. Donald W. Merricks (R-Pittsylvania), the commissions only member from the district that would host the mine, voted against the action.
Also on Monday, the Virginia legislative commission recommended that the General Assembly consider uranium mining legislation.
Opponents have voiced environmental concerns, as well as the possibility that uranium would only be mined in Virginia, and refined and distributed out of state, taking a large percentage of the profitability out of the commonwealth.
McDonnell has not come out on either side of the issue, though Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has publicly said he does not support lifting the mining ban.
Considering the amount of money being discussed in the debate, as well as environmental and socioeconomic aspects of the issue, uranium mining stands to be a highly contentious issue during the session.
Gov. McDonnell is calling 2013 the "year of the teacher" and has outlined an education initiative that would both give teachers their first state pay raise in six years, and make it easier to fire them.
The "All Students" initiative calls for a 2 percent raise in teacher salaries, which would be matched by local budgets. It also calls for an additional $15 million in grants to school systems to be used as "pay incentives" at the district's discretion.
McDonnell is also calling for increased teacher accountability, and his plan would implement a more efficient system for administrators to dismiss poorly performing teachers. It also calls for lengthening a teacher's probationary period from three to five years. Currently, a teacher must go three years before attaining a continuing contract, after which, it becomes more difficult to dismiss him.
McDonnell has tried reforming the continuing contract policy previously, but said he hopes the raise and merit-pay offerings will make it more palpable this session.
Other education items on the table include a proposal to repeal the "Kings Dominion" law, which prohibits schools from opening prior to Labor Day; an elimination of "cost of competing" funds that are used by schools in Northern Virginia to attract employees to their expensive job market; and a proposal to eliminate $12.2 million in funding for school support workers.
Contact Region Editor Jeb Inge at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org