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Lawmakers head back with sharp budget ax

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With opening of the 2015 Virginia General Assembly only a week away, local legislators Delegate James Edmunds and Senator Frank Ruff are preparing for the issues that will have the most impact on Southside Virginia.

The General Assembly is set to start next Wednesday and conclude at the end of February, and one of the biggest issues facing the local lawmakers will be the budget. Neither is looking forward to having to make necessary cuts.

"Probably every aspect of state government will have to make a cut. I don't know how bad the deficit is, but I would expect every agency is going to have to cut anywhere from 3 to 7 percent," Edmunds said. "We've cut every year since I've been in office, and I would say we've trimmed all the fat; now we're down to muscle."

Ruff said he believes legislators will try to cut as little as possible from education, while law enforcement may take a hit.

"The governor presented it several weeks ago, and our staff from both the House and the Senate independently are looking through those numbers trying to figure out what justifies this, that and the other thing. I think there will be an effort to hold k-12 education as harmless as possible. That's the biggest part of the budget, so a minute percentage change there means a lot of dollars," Ruff said.

"It's really too early to tell, but I don't think it will vary a long ways from where the governor is currently. I think probably the places he's already cut for the most part are where they'll stay.

"We have some concerns with law enforcement, but we're trying to figure out whether the economy improving over Christmas adds a few dollars to the mix. So we may be able to adjust those without harming anybody else," Ruff added.

One thing both legislators foresee: no more state mandates being handed down without funding, and each hopes to remove some of the mandates already handed down until the economy grows stronger.

"I don't think you'll see this General Assembly providing, asking or pushing on any unfunded mandates. Maybe we'll actually relax or remove some of the state mandates that are already in place," he said. "We'll do everything we can do to minimize the impact [of budget cuts] from spreading it out to all the agencies to certainly not imposing any unfunded mandates and hopefully removing some that are already in place. It's going to be tough on the localities otherwise," Edmunds said.

When asked if he foresees any unfunded state mandates in localities' future, Ruff said, "I hope not. Hopefully, we will not have any, and quite possibly we may back off on some requirements of past mandates until the economy gets a little stronger, and the budget gets a little more stable."

Workforce development and job creation is another hot button topic likely to be up for discussion during the upcoming General Assembly session.

"We've got to get our folks back to work. I think you'll see some job creation initiatives hopefully put in place. The governor is committed to doing so, and he knows as well as I the way to recovery is going to be through job growth, economic growth and creation of jobs. We will do all we can to improve that," Edmunds said.

Ruff agreed with Edmunds that workforce enhancement and job creation are the most important issues for Southside Virginia.

"Well I think in my mind and now in the governor's mind, the issues of work force development and job creation are the number one issues. I talked to him before he was sworn in about the need to improve workforce training, the need to be more specific in what we're teaching and how we're delivering it and the results we get from people who say that they're independently certified," Ruff said.

"Last year, there was no money in the budget, but we got the legislation through that would have tied funding to independent certifications at the community colleges.

"It made it through the Senate until it got to the House of Appropriations, and they sat on it. This year, Secretary Jones is making his efforts in workforce training and job creation a key point. The governor has set aside a half million dollars as a pilot program for that, and much of Southside Virginia will be covered in that half million dollar proposal."

With the September corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, ethics reform also is expected to be a big legislative concern this year.

Both legislators agree no way exists to legislate ethics.

"In light of Governor McDonnell's plight, there's room for improvement. I still contend that you can't legislate common sense, you can't legislate ethics. You either have them, or you don't. That's just my opinion. Certainly I will support ethics reform if that's what it takes to keep people honest, but I still contend you can't legislate that. You can't create good character. You've either got it, or you don't. That's like passing a law telling somebody to be honest. It doesn't really do much good," Edmunds said.

When asked for his take on ethics regulation, Ruff said, "The reality is that government cannot change ethics through legislation. An individual either has ethics or does not. Therefore the issue is really focused on the appearance of ethics rather than ethics.

"While this may have some value in representative government, it will not control those who have come to government service to enrich themselves. In addition, the proposed bills that are being introduced are geared to the relationship between public officials and registered lobbyists."

Another topic of concern that may come up during the upcoming General Assembly session is childcare regulation.

"Definitely, I would consider supporting that. There are a lot of people who keep children in their homes for a lot less expense. I would be inclined for parents to sign a statement saying that they recognize whoever is keeping the child is a non-inspected facility because if you start only allowing childcare in regulated facilities, then the cost is going to go up exponentially. I would consider some reform, but I wouldn't want to eliminate at-home childcare. That's the only option for some people," Edmunds said.

Ruff also agreed that overregulation is not the answer.

"Families want their children in the best possible situation. They must weigh the issues of regulation and cost in relationship to their incomes; all things must be considered. The first is cost. Regulation drives up cost. Even when the issue is not financial, many times the decision may be driven by quality of care," Ruff said. "Childcare in a loving, caring situation was more important to my wife and me when our children were young than any other consideration. Tougher regulations will only drive up cost by removing loving providers from the market with no proven advantage for safety. Rather than hiring more regulators and trying to close down providers, a wiser solution might be a voluntary program of education. Spending state resources on educating all providers regulated and unregulated about care and safety would better serve families," Ruff added.

In recent years, uranium mining has been a huge issue for Southside Virginia residents, but with the recent election of Governor Terry McAuliffe, the threat of uranium mining temporarily has become a moot point since he promised not to take any action on the issue during his time in office.

"Senator McEachin and I teamed up a couple of years ago and got what would have been 23 votes against it, and I've seen no movement since that time. The biggest proponent, Senator Watkins, has announced that he's going to retire. I don't think that he's going to waste any effort on it knowing that the governor would veto it if it passed. I don't see any other champions of the cause in the Senate. So I don't know where the effort would come from," Ruff said.

"I agree with him (Ruff) on uranium mining. The governor has committed not to support it. So that shouldn't be an issue this year," Edmunds said.

Both legislators have similar goals in what they want to accomplish this year during the short 30-day General Assembly session.

"Economic growth through less governmental intervention and free enterprise -- I hope to just try to create a very business friendly climate for our area and not stymie growth through overregulations. I sit on the tobacco commission, and I think we get it. We understand what it takes to get industry here and attract industry, and part of that is incentives and part of that is maintaining a very business friendly climate," Edmunds said.

Ruff agreed that enhancing the workforce and job creation are his number one priority.

Both Ruff and Edmunds are looking forward to representing Southside Virginia to the best of their abilities again this year.

"I look forward to just representing the people in my district and the things that are important to them. That's what keeps me going back is feeling like I do have a finger on the pulse of my district. I do know what's important to rural Virginia," Edmunds said.

When asked what he looked forward to the most in the upcoming session, Ruff was quick to answer.

"Making Southern Virginia a better place for an opportunity to live, raise a family and make a living. Each year, each session is new and different, and that's exciting. You never know what to expect."

Edmunds said what he dreads the most about the upcoming short session will be budget deliberations.

"I dread having to balance the budget on the backs of public safety and education. Those are the primary goals of government," Edmunds said. "It always pains me."

Edmunds and Ruff both agreed they dread leaving their families as well during their stint in Richmond.

Ruff said he is going to miss his wife, Jessie, and his two granddaughters, Juliana and Harper, who live across the street.

Edmunds said it's going to be hard leaving his wife, Jennifer, and their two children, Caroline and Paul.

Both legislators said they are ready to take Richmond by storm and make the best decisions for Southside Virginia residents.

from the Gazette Virginian

Tagged in: issues legislation