Lt. Gov. Collects Tri-Cities Opinion for Economic Agenda
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 26, 2012, 14:27
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Bolling visited Colonial Heights to talk with local leaders to get ideas for the 2013 economic development legislative agenda.
Local business and government leaders spent Wednesday afternoon in Colonial Heights participating in the planning process for the next economic development legislative agenda with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
“Four years ago, when Governor McDonnell and I ran for these offices, we made no secret about the fact that our top priority would be trying to get Virginia’s economy moving again and create jobs and economic opportunity,” Bolling said, explaining the climate that led to his appointment as the state’s first chief jobs creation officer.
At the time, Virginia faced a budget shortfall of $6 billion and two consecutive years of declining tax revenues for the first time in the state’s history. The commonwealth unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent, more than double the 3.4 percent it had been before the recession began.
“We set out on a mission to really redefine what we were doing in economic development in our state,” Bolling said to the group participating in Bolling’s fifth “Reduce Red Tape” roundtable, held in conjunction with the Hopewell-Prince George, Colonial Heights and Petersburg Chambers of Commerce.
He said that economic development mission led to the statewide round table discussions that have become a annual feature of the current administration’s creation of an economic development agenda.
Round tables with business leaders helped craft those agendas in 2010, 2011 and 2012,. The current tour should help provide a basis for the 2013 agenda.
Bolling said he thinks that over the last three years, the state has implemented the most aggressive approach to economic development in at least 20 years, using ideas proposed by business people.
“A lot of those ideas came from business groups,” he said. “They didn’t come from a bunch of government bureaucrats sitting in Richmond talking about how things work. We actually took the show on the road and got out and sat down with business leaders and groups like this all around the state.”
He said that while things have been looking up for Virginia, which has closed 938 economic development deals and created 124,000 new jobs in the last three years while bringing the unemployment rates down from 7.2 to 5.9 percent, troubling times may lie ahead, with 2007 tax cuts set to expire and sequestration looming.
“If the debt ceiling maxes out, the tax cuts are allowed to expire and sequestration kicks in, my prediction is that the American economy goes back into recession by the second or third quarter of 2013,” he said.
With only a little more than 60 days left before the end of the year, Bolling said that aggressive action would be required from leaders in Washington to prevent dire consequences.
“If Washington doesn’t get these things right, that light at the end of the tunnel could be a train,” he said.
He said that the state is bracing itself for such an event by focusing on an aspect of business in Virginia where insufficient progress has been made.
“What the Governor and I are trying to focus on this year in our legislative package is regulatory reform,” Bolling said.
“We can cut through that red rape when we know about it,” he added. “So, what we’re trying to do is find out how regulations can affect the businesses in our state and what can we do to change them.”
Bill Robertson, a member of the board of supervisors in Prince George County, took aim at one of his locality’s yearly budget gripes.
“You’re killing a lot of the localities due to state mandated mandates,” he said.
Bolling said that such mandates usually come from the highest levels of government and get passed down to the local level. He invited Robertson and other members of local governments to lobby the general assembly on specific mandates.
In addition to mandates, Robertson brought up a subject that dominated most of the afternoon’s discussion.
“The biggest thing we have heard is, ‘we need skilled workers, we can’t find skilled workers,’” he said.
Bolling said that he had heard the same thing from many of the business leaders he meets.
“The most important thing that I hear them talk about, it’s not taxes, although that’s important, frankly, it’s not regulation, although that’s important, it’s not the right to work law, although that’s important, it’s being able to find the workers that they need to do the jobs they need to have done,” he said.
He said that the problem lies in K-12 education, where, he said, Virginia has fallen into a “one-size-fits-all” trap that pushes students to attend four year colleges, rather than pursuing technical degrees or certifications.
He said that there will be initiatives related to changing that approach debated in the General Assembly this year.
The problem also exists at a higher educational level, Bolling said, with colleges and universities producing graduates with degrees that do not transfer into the market place.
Although workforce development issues education reforms associated with that issue were the main topics of conversation, the question of the I-95 toll proposal also reared it’s head.
The proposal has provoked an uproar, with many businesses and residents of the Tri-Cities area opposing it.
From examining toll projects throughout the state, Bolling said he has drawn a conclusion.
“What I’ve learned from that process is that most people don’t mind paying a reasonable toll for new highway construction, but they do object to paying a toll for roads they have previously driven on without a toll,” he said.
Bolling said the question of the proposed tolls on I-95 are a subject on which he and Gov. McDonnell do not agree.
“From my standpoint, there are some significant problems with the current proposal that is on the table,” he said. “Those problems are going to have to be addressed before that proposal moves forward in my judgement.”