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Broadband in rural areas a top priority to legislators

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Virginia State Senator Frank Ruff (R-Clarksville) and Delegate James Edmunds (R-Halifax) agree that finding additional funding for the broadband initiative in rural Virginia will be priorities for them in the upcoming General Assembly session.

The General Assembly convenes Wednesday in Richmond for a “long” session, which will adjourn on March 10 — a total of 60 days.

Ruff is focused on funding the expansion of broadband into rural Virginia, admittedly an expensive proposition.

The tobacco commission has committed $10 million to broadband expansion, but more money is needed, Ruff said.

“That’s the thing we need to enhance.”

Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative has applied for a grant through the tobacco commission to supplement the costs of providing broadband through fiber to its customers, according to Edmunds.

Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative customers in northern Halifax County and along the Route 40 corridor stand to gain from the installation of high-speed fiber, Edmunds pointed out, but the delegate also supports the less expensive “white space” initiative the county is currently pursuing.

“Until everyone of my constituents can get reasonably priced broadband, that’s always going to be an issue,” said Edmunds.

A second priority for Ruff this legislative session is funding for the fast track workforce-training program through Southern Virginia Community College.

“Approximately 6,000 people have finished the program, and on average they will be making three times what they were making before they went into the program,” said Ruff. “We need more money for it, and that will be a priority of mine.”

Another issue for Ruff is school funding and finding ways to properly fund schools with declining populations.

Transportation costs are a great deal more in larger rural counties such as Halifax County and Mecklenburg County, Ruff pointed out, and they need to be factored in.

Edmunds is sponsoring several bills this legislative session, the most notable one that would allow Virginia counties the ability to increase their revenue through an increase in the sales tax.

Under the Dillon Rule, cities and towns, but not counties, currently have the ability to increase their own sales tax.

Counties would only be able to increase their sales taxes through a referendum, and funds would only be used for capital projects, according to Edmunds’ bill.

“It is being filed, and I’ve asked legislative services to draft it,” said Edmunds. “This would not be an upright lifting of the Dillon Rule, because it would be by referendum.”

Edmunds also is working with Senator Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) on a bill that would relax vocational teaching requirements, so that instructors can more easily teach in the school system without first obtaining a teaching certificate.

“A good brick layer can come in and teach brick laying without having to go through the rigmarole of obtaining a teaching certificate, because that’s what you need, someone with real world experience,” said Edmunds.

With control of the Virginia House of Delegates still up in the air, and with the State Senate almost evenly divided, Ruff and Edmunds think one of the biggest challenges for this year’s general assembly session is bringing both sides of the aisle together to address key legislative issues.

“I’m not sure what will be accomplished this year,” said Ruff, citing the potential 50-50 split in the House of Delegates.

Republicans currently hold a narrow 21-19 advantage over Democrats in the State Senate.

“Either way there will be a lot of new personalities and getting to know folks will be a curve for everybody,” explained Ruff.

“I know our biggest challenge in our area is how do we get to know those folks though they may be on either side of the aisle. New faces from urban and suburban areas don’t understand rural Virginia,” Ruff added.

“Most of them are used to subdivisions with nice streets and sidewalks and have no idea about anything below Fredericksburg. That is going to be the biggest challenge for all members of the general assembly.”

Edmunds indicated it would take time to build relationships and trust with the newest members of the general assembly

“We lost a lot of institutional knowledge,” said Edmunds. “Now you’re starting with a clean slate, and that’s going to take a lot of time to build those relationships back up.”

The biggest issue in the first couple of weeks is to find out who is in charge, according to Edmunds.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do that. We’ve had power sharing in the past for a short period of time, but not for two years,” he said.

“You’ll have to work together, but it can be a good thing. This would require some cooperation, and I think that’s what the voters want to see.”

From the Gazette Virginian