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Region briefed on 2018 session

Area lawmakers discuss this year's General Assembly over pancakes at annual breakfast

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Just a few months after visiting Lynchburg to answer questions about politics, education and the economy ahead of the General Assembly, Virginia legislators returned to the Hill City to give their thoughts on the most recent session.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County; Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg; Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg; and Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, spoke at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance's Pancakes & Politics Legislative Wrap-Up Breakfast at the Hancock Welcome Center on the Liberty University campus.

The breakfast was attended by about 90 area business people.

Though the General Assembly session ended last month, lawmakers still are tasked with passing a budget of more than $100 million and will aim to finish work on the budget during a special session April 11 so a government shutdown can be avoided.

"They will do the best they can to come up with a budget that's good for Virginia and one we can count on and is fiscally responsible," Peake said. "So I know they will do the best they can as soon as they can."

Newman said state revenue will be higher this year in the budget than in the past in part because of President Donald Trump's tax reform plan.

"It's actually going to bring somewhere between a quarter of a million dollars to $400 million additional dollars because of economic activity that will take place, and we're not spending one dime of that," he said.

He added the governor's proposed budget has $300 million set aside in a "rainy day fund" in addition to the constitutionally required rainy day fund.

Newman briefly spoke about the fate of the Central Virginia Training Center, a state facility in Amherst County serving individuals with severe disabilities that is scheduled to close in 2020.

"I think we are going to find a pathway. It could be a public or private pathway or a combination of both," he said. "God told us to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, not people who will not work but people who cannot take care of themselves ... and they are a measure of ourselves."

Bob Good, a member of the Campbell County Board of Supervisors, asked Newman how the state would be affected as it continues to lean to the left.

Newman assured him the repartee between legislators at the state level is very different from what is seen at the federal level.

"We may agree and disagree on policies, but we are not disagreeable," he said. "We had 40 members of the Senate, all of us, vote for the budget. It was a good process."

He said socially, the state could become a very different place than it was before.

"On tax policy, we are a medium-low tax state, and I think that could be very much in danger," Newman said. "The political system is not veryhealthy. If you're a Democrat here today, you know your leaders are moving further to the left, and if you're a Republican, you can't seem to make it further to the right; that's a difficulty. There's a responsibility to find that way forward."

Peake addressed teacher shortages, which he said are not just a local problem. He has met with school boards across the district that say they have had trouble with teacher retention and recruiting.

He said it should be up to the locality, not the state, to decide how much certification is required to teach in public schools.

"We are helping with teacher certification to make it easier for localities to keep their teachers and allow them to teach for two or three years until they get their teacher certification," he said. "We need to make it easier for those who teach trades to teach our kids."

Gary Hostutler, who served on the Bedford County School Board for 12 years, told Peake there needs to be more freedom left to school boards to decide how long students should be suspended for.

Though the goal is to keep kids in school, he said there is sometimes one student who causes more stress for both the class and the teacher because of disciplinary issues.

Peake agreed if teachers aren't pleased with their environment, they will leave to go somewhere they are treated better by both faculty and students.

"Discipline is extremely key, especially in public schools," he said. "In private schools, they'll kick you out. We have to do more at the state level to give more authority to our school boards."

Peake said teachers have the most important job in the state.

"They are teaching our children for the future, teaching them how to become responsible citizens, teaching them what our state and country is all about," he said. "It's not all about money; it's about how they're treated, how they're respected and about how the students behave. If you want to have good schools, you need to have good parents involved, and we can't mandate that at the state level. We need to give localities the freedom to handle problem children and make sure they be have and make sure the parents are involved and they come there to get an education. We can't be babysitters."

At the center of the budget is the debate over Medicaid expansion endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Garrett addressed program enhancements, which included the requirement to work.

"We believe in the dignity of work," he said. "There are positive health improvements from work and getting engaged in the community. There's a requirement for people to learn healthier behaviors. It's not healthy behavior to go to the emergency room to receive primary care. Super utilizers are the highest cost of our 30 hospital systems statewide. We have to change their thought patterns, mindsets and behavioral patterns."

Cline talked about his passion to reform federal regulations on businesses.

He said some regulations on businesses, such as extra schooling or certifications, are too much or need to be reduced.

"We have considered legislation to encourage regulatory reform by helping pilot programs to examine and quantify and bring together all the different regulations that exist at the state level ... how they impact businesses, the cost they have on businesses and you, the taxpayers, and see how we can reduce those in a comprehensive, systematic way so businesses and state can benefit as well as the taxpayer and community," he said.

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