Bedford County representatives in Virginia’s House of Delegates assured Bedford residents they were “fighting for you” during the state General Assembly’s recent session in Richmond.
Delegates Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg; Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County; and Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, discussed Interstate 81 improvements, tax conformity and healthcare legislation May 1 during the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legislative Breakfast at the Liberty Station restaurant in Bedford.
“We faced a lot of issues this year in Richmond,” Garrett said. “However, all of us here were fighting for you and we will continue to fight for you in our capital.”
The annual event was hosted by the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, Appalachian Power, Bank of the James and Centra Bedford Memorial Hospital.
“There is so much going on during General Assembly sessions that we don’t get to hear about what our representatives are doing for us in Richmond,” said Scott Hall, the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce’s board chairman. “This gives us an opportunity to hear directly from them.”
Austin on May 1 discussed recently passed legislation to address issues on Interstate 81 and efforts to secure additional funding for the interstate from the federal government.
“Interstate 81 is the primary route through the region,” Austin said. “I live along the I-81 corridor and I have noticed a lot of needs.”
Austin said a study by the Virginia Department of Transportation identified about $4 billion in road improvement projects along the interstate but the state’s budget — which was passed in February — covers about half of the estimate.
“The package we put forth is about $2 billion,” Austin said. “We are going to be asking our representatives in Washington, D.C., to step up to the plate and fund the additional $2 billion.”
Austin said funding for the $2 billion in improvements to the interstate will come from increasing diesel and gasoline taxes on trucks and cars along the 325-mile corridor and an increase in truck-only taxes and fees statewide.
“We will be able to complete a $150 million project every year along I-81,” Austin said.
Garrett discussed the challenges Republican delegates faced with the issue of tax conformity in Virginia.
“It is the most difficult issue that faces us each time the General Assembly meets in January,” Garrett said. “One of the very first bills we vote on is a conformity bill that basically says Virginia will conform its tax code to changes in the federal tax codes since we adjourned back in the previous March or April.”
After President Donald Trump signed into law the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017, the standard deduction was doubled from $12,000 per family to $24,000 per family at the federal level, Garrett said.
“A lot had changed in the nine months since we had last met,” he said. “We had to decide what to do with these changes.”
Garrett said a Democrat-led movement to conform Virginia’s tax code to the federal legislation would have resulted in an additional $1.2 billion in tax burdens.
“Gov. Ralph Northam also proposed refundable tax credits for low-income households that would have cost us a lot more,” Garrett said. “We fought against that.”
Garrett said the state is not increasing taxes $1.2 billion but instead cut about $1 billion of taxes and will be refunding about $978 million to residents in Virginia,
“Individuals will receive about $110 and families should receive about $220 in October,” Garrett said. “Refunding almost $1 billion sounds better than increasing taxes by $1.2 billion.”
Byron said Republican legislators still are facing opposition to bills that would lower health insurance costs for small businesses and residents purchasing their own insurance.
“We haven’t been able to get the governor to sign off on legislation that would make it easier or more affordable to get insurance,” Byron said. “We need to be aware of where the roadblocks are.”
Due to state mandates after the Affordable Care Act was passed, Byron said a 55-year-old woman that used to pay $376 a month for health insurance now pays about $4,300 a month for health coverage.
“People are paying outrageous premiums,” Byron said. “Because of these costs, health insurance is one of the biggest obstacles facing families and small businesses. Something has to be done.”
However, Byron did praise the bipartisan effort in the General Assembly to approve more than $5 million in grants — including a $1,040,000 grant for Bedford County — through the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, which provides funding to extend broadband service to underserved areas throughout Virginia.
“I was pleased to see that Bedford County received the largest grant,” Byron said. “The broadband issue is a very complex issue and it is becoming increasingly important for just about every industry, including the agricultural industry in Virginia.”
The delegates also discussed Democrat-led attempts to raise the minimum wage in Virginia.
“Every single Democrat in Richmond voted to raise the minimum wage,” Byron said. “If you look at every state where this has been passed it has been a disaster. It makes it difficult for small businesses to operate and ends up driving businesses out of those states. Every one of these states are unraveling because of it.”
Garrett also discussed the difficulties facing delegates this year in Richmond because of the “toxicity” of state politics.
Garrett — a general surgeon in Lynchburg — also commented on Northam’s support in January for a proposed bill that would allow abortion up until the moment of childbirth.
“A pediatric neurologist supporting infanticide is unconscionable,” Garrett said. “If we don’t stand up for life in Virginia, who are we as a people?”
All three candidates also expressed the importance of voting during the upcoming elections in November and the Republican primaries in June.