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General Assembly: Uranium not only issue

Monday, January 7, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The much debated issue of uranium mining will take center stage when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, but legislators also are set to discuss transportation, jobs and other issues.

Three of the four area legislators have said they do not want the state ban lifted so uranium can be mined in Pittsylvania County. Only Del. Charles Poindexter has not issued a position on the issue.

Poindexter said he is waiting for the facts about the proposal to mine uranium, including “some more information on the socio-economic side” of the issue. “I want to hear all” of the information, and arguments from both sides before making a final decision, he added.

On Thursday, the Danville City Council unanimously voted to keep the ban in place.

“I think that speaks volumes. If you look at the three legislators who represent this area, all but one have said they don't want the ban lifted,” Del. Danny Marshall said of himself, Dec. Don Merricks and state Sen. Bill Stanley.

But that is not the only issue that will face legislators in this session.

State Sen. Bill Stanley

Stanley, R-Glade Hill, said he anticipates “we will have a lot of talk about transportation issues. One part of that is making sure we have (funding) for U.S. 58 and completion of it since it was promised so long ago.”

Interstate 73 also will be part of that discussion, while other talks will focus on the budget, jobs and building the economy in Southside, he said.

“A lot of my bills are going to focus on workforce training,” which is a paramount concern to many of the companies “I speak to. Always, the first question they ask me is how is the workforce,” Stanley said.

He also is reintroducing legislation that would provide credits up to $100,000 for companies that renovate, retrofit, upfit and locate in former industrial buildings, providing certain thresholds are met in terms of capital and other investments, Stanley said. That bill passed the Senate but died in the House last year.

Del. Charles Poindexter

Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, said transportation will prompt lengthy discussions in this session.

“There are a lot of different proposals from legislators” and Gov. Bob McDonnell on transportation, and proposals that include funding for U.S. 58 and “maybe even some funding for Interstate 73” are of particular interest, Poindexter said.

“I can’t predict the success” of efforts to secure funds for either project, but “we need both of those and we need to move on with it. Whether we can actually address the issues of the complex transportation problem in a short session” remains to be seen, he said.

This year’s session is 45 days long, compared to sessions in even numbered years which are 60 days long, according to online information.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee and because of his “high interest,” Poindexter said he also will be heavily involved in discussions of K-12 education reform.

“The governor is rolling out another reform package” with some areas that focus on youngsters “learning to read and write early on,” Poindexter said. Research has shown that if a youngster is not reading by the third grade, his “success in catching up is almost zero.”

Poindexter said he also supports giving school boards more flexibility on certain positions — such as librarians — to allow them to put certain employees where they are most needed.

“We will be looking at the school resource officer allocation and funding” for school security, a 2 percent teacher pay raise and a program titled Teach for America, which involves recruiting “bright young kids as they leave college to come and teach in our schools at least for a year or two” in the hopes that “they will want to stay,” he said. There also will be more emphasis on STEM — science, technology, English and math — classes.

Rural legislators in particular “are concerned about the pay of our local law enforcement” officers, Poindexter said. “I don't know where we will find the money” for raises, “but we are going to be looking. The cloud in the sky continues to be the economy. There is a lot of work still to be done at federal level.”

Poindexter has prefiled about a dozen bills, including one to lower electricity costs by capping the amount of renewable energies available to utility companies and to secure funding for work on U.S. 58.

Del. Don Merricks

Merricks, R-Danville, anticipates a busy session.

“With this being the governor’s final year in office,” there will be amendments Gov. Bob McDonnell made or wants to make to the budget, Merricks said, adding that many of them are good. For instance, he cited a measure that would allow localities to keep more of their state funds rather than return part of it to Richmond, and another to reduce the accelerated sales tax “to where only about 2 percent of the retailers would be affected.”

Merricks also said he will work on McDonnell’s K-12 education initiative, which will try to bring “some accountability to the system. ... We have a great bunch of teachers, and I don’t think anybody doubts that, but this (initiative) is to try to reshore up that system,” he said.

Other bills that will be considered are related to weapons “as people react ... to the shooting” in a Connecticut elementary school, as well as some to get Virginia to create a health care exchange system, which McDonnell has declined to do as part of the new health care reform legislation.

Merricks said he agreed “with the governor on that because we really haven’t got enough answers from the federal government” about how it would work.

Expanding Medicaid also will be an “interesting discussion,” Merricks said.

“In our area, people would benefit from expanding it, but in Virginia, the government pays 50 percent of that cost,” and that amount has risen for several years, he said.

Among the proposals introduced by Merricks is to “give law enforcement a little more teeth in enforcing” laws pertaining to scrap metal as a way to curb metal thefts, and allowing local school divisions to open before Labor Day, which was defeated last year.

Transportation is another area that will prompt much discussion, he said.

Merricks said he is not sure “we can get this done in one session ... We only have about three weeks before we turn over” House proposals to the Senate. “It’s almost like trying to chew 15 pieces of bubble gun at the same time. ... We’ve got a lot to talk about, that’s for sure.”

Del. Danny Marshall

Marshall, R-Danville, said many his proposals were suggested by constituents who contacted him after the November election, including a bill to allow those aged 65 by election day to vote by absentee ballot.

Marshall said that Virginia does not have an early voting mechanism such as the ones in some other states like North Carolina. Absentee voting is permitted only under certain provisions such as hospitalization or working out of state, he added.

According to information from the State Board of Elections, the number of senior citizens who voted in the last eight elections has declined, Marshall said. “The whole U.S. population is getting older, and it is just getting harder for them” to get to the polls. “This is just a way for them to exercise their liberty.”

The Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut prompted another proposal, after a constituent inquired about security and schools that are used as voting precincts, he said.

To reduce access to schools, Marshall’s proposal would require the State Board of Elections to consider using fire departments, Ruritan buildings and other public buildings as voting precincts rather than public or private schools, he said.

Other proposals he filed were requested by Danville/Pittsylvania County, and would have little or no impact in other areas. They “are kind of just home cooking,” Marshall said Friday.

But, he noted that uranium mining “is certainly going to be the nuclear issue in 2013.”


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