WINCHESTER — Several elected representatives for the Northern Shenandoah Valley participated in a virtual public policy meeting Thursday morning to discuss their priorities for the General Assembly legislative session that begins in January.
The elected officials included state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, 10th District Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, 29th District Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, and 33rd District Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton. The event was hosted by the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber.
Gooditis said her top priority is expanding broadband and access to high-speed Internet, as COVID drastically increased the need for broadband access for education, work and telehealth. The others agreed.
Gooditis also expressed support for protecting domestic workers and agricultural businesses and finding ways to sequester carbon without putting an additional burden on farmers.
LaRock, who has opposed Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions and closures, said he plans to introduce legislation that would restrict the executive authority of the government by limiting the amount of time an emergency executive order can be in effect before it must receive approval from the House of Delegates and the Senate.
“This current situation we are in where the governor has basically for eight plus months, has placed himself in the position of being a dictator — operating to create laws that have never been enacted by the legislature — represents a huge threat to business,” LaRock said. “If he continues and expands or draws this out … we’ll have moved from a government that respects the proper decision of the legislature and enact these draconian shutdown measures regardless of the effect of the shutdown itself versus the harms of the virus itself.”
Wiley said, “we need to get our kids back in school as quickly as possible” and he wants to make sure the General Assembly supports police. He opposes efforts to decrease funding for law enforcement and has criticized the “defund the police” movement.
“It’s a wrong message and the wrong direction,” Wiley said. “A lot of police and first responders...are retiring, are leaving. They are moving on to a different profession. And this is not the direction we want them to go.”
Expanding broadband access and making transportation improvements — including Interstate 81 — were Vogel’s biggest priorities.
When asked about fully reopening the state in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, LaRock said, “it should never have been closed.” He said that while measures should be put in place to help elderly, sick and at-risk people, he said there are “financial, economic and human costs” to staying closed. A healthy economy is important for maintaining healthy families, he said. LaRock also said the effects of COVID-19 have been exaggerated, saying “this is very much analogous to a severe flu season.”
Gooditis pushed back, saying there is a higher mortality rate with COVID than with the flu. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed 1.49 million people worldwide and 270,000 people in the U.S. Based on data from the Centers of Disease Control, COVID has killed more people in the U.S. than influenza has in the past seven years combined.
“Beyond that, there are the aftereffects of people who survive it,” Gooditis said. “There are countless systemic problems and even neurological issues. So much of it is so unknown. It is very different from the flu. I think if you talk to our thousands of employees at our local Valley Health and Winchester Medical Center, they will tell you this is not just a tough flu season. This is a deadly pandemic. It’s a global pandemic. And it’s horrifically difficult on families, on students, on businesses. But what do we do? Do we just open the world and flood the hospitals?”
Gooditis said the state cannot overwhelm its hospital systems by reopening everything and that Virginians should follow science, socially distance and “hang in there until there’s a vaccination.”
“We do need to open business, we do need to get kids back in school, but the only way we can do it is to not make it a risk for the 62-year-old veteran teacher to be there in the classroom with them,” Gooditis said.
Vogel said there needs to be some sort of tax relief to help businesses who have been harmed through COVID-19 closures. She also criticized how the COVID-19 closures “unfairly picks winners and losers” with some businesses being allowed to stay open and others being forced to shut down. Vogel said many small business owners have told her that they are now permanently out of business due to Northam’s mandated restrictions.
“I am not suggesting that we do something that is harmful to people’s public health, but I am suggesting that we need to do the right thing and accelerate our efforts to open up Virginia and let people make good choices,” Vogel said.
Wiley said that more rural areas of Virginia should not be forced to go through the same mandates as more heavily populated areas of the state.
When asked if she would support the legalization of marijuana, Gooditis said she wants to hear from her constituents, law enforcement and the legislative Black Caucus. The Black Caucus has previously stated that people of color are more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana use.
“This decision is going to be very, very hard for me because I understand it from both sides,” Gooditis said.
LaRock said he will oppose marijuana’s legalization, calling it harmful to individuals and society as a whole. He believes it will make people less productive and less reliable and will be a gateway to people using harder drugs.
Wiley said he wants to first look at the policy and hear from more constituents, but said he is currently leaning toward opposing the legalization of marijuana.
Vogel said marijuana’s legalization “is going to pass” with the governor and House and Senate leadership and many of her constituents supporting it. Although she expressed concern about marijuana decreasing productivity, she also questioned the amount of time and resources that have been spent cracking down on marijuana use.
She told The Star after the meeting that she plans on voting for its legalization “with the right regulatory framework around adult use. It is going to happen, and I have a strong interest in making certain that it is done properly and in a way that leverages the economic benefit for Virginia as well.”