$2.4 million for New College Institute intact

April 13, 2006

Martinsville Bulletin

While keeping $2.4 million for the New College Institute, the House on Wednesday passed a budget that nixes funding for the Hillsville Bypass and slashes money for the Governor's Opportunity Fund (GOF), two measures local lawmakers say are essential to area economic development.

Largely resurrecting a budget they passed in February, the House included none of the nearly $50 million Gov. Mark Warner earmarked for the completion of the four-laning of U.S. 58 and less than half of the $21 million he set aside for the GOF, which provides incentive money localities can use to attract businesses.

The one difference in the new plan is a nearly $1 billion reserve to be used on transportation once the House and Senate agree on a plan to solve the state's rail and roads problems. The reserve would allow the General Assembly to pass a general fund budget and then return to the contentious transportation issue in another special session.

Local lawmakers and economic developers said that the House plan's cut to the GOF could inhibit their efforts to revitalize Henry County and Martinsville. Since 1994, the area has received 19 approvals for GOF grants totaling more than $9 million, representing projects with announced investments of more than $233 million and 4,215 jobs, according to statistics provided by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), which administers the GOF.

"I can tell you that we (the city and county) have used it (the GOF) on every major project in the past several years," said Tom Harned, vice president of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC).

According to the VEDP, the state appropriated $9 million for the GOF this year. While the Senate plan would bump that funding to $21 million over two years, the House plan would provide the fund just $11.5 million over two years, cutting its annual funding almost in half.

"We compete with the rest of the state for the use of those funds," said Harned, "and the smaller the pot of money, the less likely Martinsville and Henry County will be able to access large enough grants to close deals on our projects."

Given that reality, local lawmakers said they are not prepared to give up GOF funding — or equally important money for the completion of U.S. 58 — without a fight.

"I don't know where we would be without it (the GOF)," said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville. "To cut that almost in half I think is not appropriate."

For that reason, Armstrong said he supported a Democratic floor amendment to the budget that would have restored the money Warner earmarked for the GOF and sponsored a similar measure that would have provided $50 million for U.S. 58.

When those failed, Armstrong voted against the House budget plan.

"It passed without my vote," he said.

Across the aisle, Armstrong's Republican counterparts dismissed the Democratic amendments as little more than public posturing. Their passage, they said, would unravel what they called "a solid budget" and send the House Appropriations Committee back to the drawing board, more or less marking them dead-on-arrival.

"If you put in $9 million for the Governor's Opportunity Fund or $50 million for the Hillsville Bypass then you have to take it out from somewhere else," explained Del. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham.

"Unfortunately, there are some in the Democratic party who want to play games with the budget process," Hurt added, "and offered amendments knowing full well that they would not be adopted."

Even less productive, he said, was voting against a budget that, while not perfect, nevertheless includes more than $2 million for the New College, some money for the GOF and funding increases for core services like public education, health care and public safety.

"The same legislators that put in those ridiculous amendments are the ones that voted against the budget and against the New College," said Hurt.

A better strategy, he said, would be to vote for the budget, send it to a conference committee and then lobby the conferees to bump GOF and U.S. 58 funding.

"It's the art of compromise," said Hurt. "It is my hope that at the end of the day the money will be restored to the Governor's Opportunity Fund. But there's a right way to do it. We can play games with it or we can sit down and actually try to do something."


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