Forum covers hot topicsPublished 10:09am Friday, April 11, 2014
Special to The Tidewater News
The state budget, transportation and health care dominated the discussion at a legislative forum at King’s Fork High School on Wednesday night.
Hastily organized around the General Assembly’s constantly changing schedule, the forum drew a crowd of only about 30 citizens. Their questions covered not only the hot topics but also school lunches, Standards of Learning tests and train crossings in Suffolk.
Delegates Chris Jones and Rick Morris, both Republicans, and Matthew James, a Democrat, were in attendance. Morris organized the forum.
Much of the discussion centered on the state budget, which the General Assembly has yet to agree upon. Jones promised his constituents there will be a budget in place by July 1.
“We do have to have one by July the first,” he said. “We’re not like the federal government that can just do a continuing resolution.”
Jones said the Senate has refused to consider the House bill, which breaks tradition, he said.
“The budget bill always originates from the people’s House,” he said. “Until they send the House bill back, there’s nothing to discuss.”
The primary disagreement, Jones said, lies in whether Medicaid expansion would be included in the budget. Jones believes it’s time for reforms.
“I feel strongly the reforms have to be in place and working before you even think about expanding,” he said. “Once you expand an entitlement, you’re never going to get it back.”
With five Suffolk City Council members in attendance, Jones acknowledged the budgets for school divisions and local governments are being “held hostage” by the lack of movement in the General Assembly.
Transportation was another topic of much discussion. Jones said he hopes to get some answers about the Route 460 debacle when he meets with officials in two weeks.
“I’m going to get a full accounting on what happened with 460 and see how we could have spent $300 million and not purchased a single right of way, not turned a single shovel of dirt,” he said, adding he believes the contract for the road was signed illegally.
Morris said the current Route 460 should be improved if the new one does not get built.
“Just a little bit of bad weather floods 460,” he said. “There’s also a public safety issue.”
Jennifer Strother, who lives in Isle of Wight County, posed a question about health care. She said her health care plan will be canceled later this year because of Obamacare, and alternate plans will cost her up to four times as much, which she cannot afford.
She said she was told to ask her legislators to extend the expiration date of the plans that are being canceled, but the legislators said they believe it could be done administratively.
Strother’s 11-year-old daughter, Devin, posed questions about school lunches and the SOL tests. She said her school lunches do not taste good and don’t fill her up.
But Morris said there are “criteria and strings involved” when the states take federal money to help fund school lunches. He said he wants to get Virginia to a point where it does not have to rely on the federal money, “so the lunches will taste good.”
James encouraged the girl to organize the students at her school and “hold (the vendors’) feet to the fire” to make them improve the lunches.
The legislators had a better answer for her SOL question, though. They noted they had passed legislation to reduce the number of tests students must take.
Regarding budget amendments Jones introduced to help lessen the impact of rail traffic in Suffolk, he said they are needed to improve the quality of life for people in neighborhoods near railroads in Suffolk, and for economic development.
“This is not a pork issue, this is an economic engine for our commonwealth,” he said.