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New River, Roanoke valleys' governments lobby state for education, police, child care funding

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Students arrive at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School in Elliston for their first day of school in August. Public school needs are a focus of local governing bodies' legislative wish lists being sent to state legislators.

Cities and counties in the region are sending Christmas wish lists to their state lawmakers, who are considering which laws to make when the General Assembly convenes again this winter.

Looking ahead to 2022, counties, towns and cities alike want more state funding for education, policing and children’s services, among other requests.

Localities, including Roanoke County, want more money from Virginia for school construction, with crumbling schools a growing concern across Southwest Virginia. Statewide, public schools in Virginia spent more than $226 million on construction in 2020, according to Virginia Department of Education data.

Incentives are also requested from the state government to help improve teacher salaries in a state that paid about $10,000 less than the national average for full-time public school teachers as of 2020, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

More state funding for police departments is also being requested. Cities and counties are requesting more funds for police departments from House Bill 599, enacted in 1980, which during the current fiscal year is allocating $191 million to law enforcement statewide, including almost $6 million to Roanoke.

Counties, including Botetourt and Roanoke, want the state to provide funding and other resources to support local expenses induced by the Children’s Services Act.

Costs to provide foster care and other youth social services are increasing each year for localities. The system, which statewide served more than 15,000 children and families with a $435 million budget in 2020, is in other ways strained.

The state also needs increased resources for behavioral and mental health programs, according to documents. Six of the state’s eight mental hospitals, including the Catawba Hospital near Roanoke, were closed for a period this summer due to staffing shortages.

Other priorities recommended to the state by local governments in the Roanoke and New River valleys include transportation spending, particularly along the bumpy I-81 corridor, expansion of broadband access and resources for regionwide recreation.

Those are a few of the many items listed for lawmakers’ consideration as the General Assembly prepares to convene for a 60-day session, starting Jan. 12.

That list is decided by local government leaders, who meet for the Virginia Association of Counties conference each November, compiling a legislative program to set priorities ahead of the state’s lawmaking session.

Similarly, cities and towns meet and approve a legislative program during the Virginia Municipal League conference in October.

After contributing to the larger, statewide lists, local leaders will sometimes add their own items to a shortened list of legislative priorities, specific to the place they represent.

As an example, Roanoke is requesting that the Virginia Museum of Transportation be made an official state agency, allowing it to receive state funding. The downtown museum’s staff has shrunk and leadership has turned over multiple times since coronavirus shutdowns of 2020.

Salem wants lawmakers to reverse the 2021 law change that requires the city to hold its local elections in November, rather than in May, as tradition has dictated.

And Roanoke County submitted a unique request to state lawmakers: the authority to issue personal property tax refunds, to redistribute some of a recent and unexpected $14 million budget surplus.

Oftentimes, county boards of supervisors, city and town councils pass their priorities unanimously and with ease. But Montgomery County had a political debate as part of its legislative priorities this year by adding an item about school vouchers and tax credits, which was approved on a split partyline vote.

Early entries

As December begins, some bills are already drafted and ready for discussion, awaiting the beginning of the 2022 General Assembly session.

Three bills were already filed to the Virginia Senate by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County:

One of the bills filed by Suetterlein, Senate Bill 3, would require election officials to count absentee ballots by the precinct they were cast for, instead of lumping all mail-in and absentee votes together in their own category.

“Everyone benefits from clear election results that demonstrate the electoral action of neighborhoods and communities across the Commonwealth,” Suetterlein said in a press release.

Meanwhile, SB 4 seeks to limit the extent of emergency executive orders issued by the governor, while SB 5 would make public any votes cast by the Virginia Parole Board.

“Virginians have a right to know the names of the well-compensated individuals on the Parole Board that make the critical decisions about individuals’ liberty and the public’s safety,” Suetterlein said in a press release.

And during a phone call, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said he plans to introduce a bill that would raise the delinquency age from 18 to 21 for most legal purposes, as well as a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in most cases, along with a bill that could allow more opportunities for people who are convicted of certain “barrier crimes“ that make employment difficult or impossible in some professions and government offices.

“Those are some ideas,” Edwards said. “We are looking forward to continue to make progress for Virginia.”

To learn more about specific bills or to see new ones as they are filed and progress through the lawmaking system, go online to the Virginia General Assembly Legislative Information System: lis.virginia.gov.

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