While traffic and transportation were on the top of everyone's mind during the first event in the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce's Policy Makers series, Northern Virginia's representatives focused on more than just the pending statewide transportation plan currently sitting before Gov. Tim Kaine (D) for approval. Delegates David Poisson (D-32), Joe May (R-33), Tom Davis Rust (R-86) and Chuck Caputo (D-67) and Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) spoke before the chamber about issues ranging from safety precautions for teenagers to electrical energy deregulation.
SOME OF THE representatives said one of the most important bills passed during the session was the approval of the college transfer grant program.
"We are going to have 10,000 more students then there are seats in colleges, starting with the class of 2009," Poisson said. "Education is something we are going to need to look at as closely as we have transportation."
Under the approved bill, Virginia residents who have successfully completed an acceptable associate degree program at a two-year college in the state are eligible for a higher education grant. The grant is fixed at $1,000 per year, with an additional $1,000 per year available to students working toward a degree in engineering, mathematics, nursing, teaching or science.
"This grant will really help those [students] eligible with tuition at a four-year university," Caputo said.
CAPUTO ALSO pointed out the importance of the bill that would restrict any driver under the age of 18 years old from using a cellular phone. The bill prohibits the use of handheld or non-handheld devices, including assorted wireless communication devices, while operating a moving vehicle.
"This is something that will go a long way to promoting the safety of our teenagers," he said.
In addition to expressing his support for the cell phone-prohibition bill, May explained to the chamber why he voted against the minimum wage bill that failed to be approved this session. The bill would have raised the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour to $6.50 per hour beginning July 1, 2007.
May said that he could not support the minimum wage increase because it was a "nonissue" in Northern Virginia. "I think you'll find in Northern Virginia that, if you can get out of bed in the morning, you can find yourself a good paying job above minimum wage," he said.
The 33rd District delegate also pointed out the importance of deregulating electric energy services, calling the approved bill a "compromise." The bill moves up the expiration of the capped rate period from Dec. 31, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2008. After the expiration date, the rates of investor-owned electric utilities will be decided through a biannual review process. The bill will allow for consumers to shop around for the best electric utility service for their needs.
"Energy is getting more and more expensive," May said, "and we are going to have to pay for it."
HERRING AND RUST demonstrated to the chamber the two different sides of the transportation debate, with Herring stating why he could not support the proposal and Rust explaining why it was a good package for the state.
"It was a big bipartisan effort," Rust said. "Everyone sitting up here in the House, at one time or another, was a co-patron of the bill. Is it perfect? No. Everyone hates something about the bill and that makes it a good bill."
Herring, however, said that the he did not believe the package was complete, and it "passed the buck" of raising money for roads to the localities.
"It has generated a great deal of resentment among local officials," he said. "It is unrealistic to believe that local officials would raise all the revenue for Northern Virginia when the General Assembly was unwilling to raise any."
Herring also pointed out that under the proposed transportation bill Northern Virginia would end up with only $50 million to $80 million for road projects if the localities did not agree to enact all the new taxes spelled out in the bill.
"That is a huge gamble," he said.