Legislators talk infrastructure, Ukraine with local officials

Published 6:18 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott and Elaine Luria, and state Sen. L. Louise Lucas met with Isle of Wight and Surry county officials March 25 in a roundtable discussion hosted at Isle of Wight’s government complex.

Among Warner’s purposes, according to a Senate press release, had been to highlight rural broadband funding included in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law — but the conversation ended up covering a variety of topics, from Virginia’s pending biennial state budget to the potential for cyber attacks in the wake of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

President Joe Biden signed the $550 billion federal funding package, officially known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, into law in November after it passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Senate. It’s now commonly known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, for having secured the votes of two House Republicans and 18 Republican senators.

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According to Warner, the package includes $65 billion for broadband — $40 billion for buildout and $25 billion to make it affordable for homes and businesses.

“Virginia really took a lead on saying let’s allow utility companies to build the ‘middle mile’ and then the rural electric co-ops if they can build the last mile,” Warner said.

The approach is the one Surry County used last year when partnering with Prince George Electric Cooperative subsidiary Ruralband and Dominion Energy to achieve universal countywide broadband accessibility. Isle of Wight County has a similar initiative in the works in partnership with Ruralband and Charter Communications, but unlike the Surry initiative, Isle of Wight’s will focus on extending service to areas of the county currently without access to cable modem service.

“Rural broadband is something that is desperately needed,” Scott said. “One hundred years ago we decided that everybody ought to have a telephone, everybody ought to have electricity, now 100 years later everybody needs broadband.”

The infrastructure package also includes funding to increase the size of the Port of Virginia’s channel, making it “the deepest port on the East Coast, dredged to 55 feet,” Luria said.

Luria, a Democrat, said she was also able to work with Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Whitman “across the aisle and across the (Chesapeake) Bay” to get “major environmental legislation signed into law,” which is now being continued forward in the president’s budget.

Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposes funding the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program at $90.5 million, the most funding the program has ever requested.

“We’re now the largest producer of clams in the country, and have a new opportunity to potentially start exporting our oysters and other shellfish to Europe,” Luria said.

The conversation then turned to the CHIPS bill, a proposed piece of legislation that would subsidize semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. According to Warner, the U.S. used to have about 40% of the semiconductor market. Now, the figure is closer to 9% and China has gone from single digits to just over 25%.

A shortage of the semiconductor chips used in newer cars has exacerbated the nationwide pandemic-related shortage of cars on the market, driving up prices of new and used vehicles. Isle of Wight County, in February, cut its personal property tax rate by 60 cents to ease the burden on local drivers when tax bills reflecting their vehicle’s new assessed value are mailed in April.

Warner warned local officials to expect Russian cyber attacks on the U.S. in the days and weeks ahead.

“This is the scariest time in my life,” Warner said. “The good news is the American intelligence community was almost 100% accurate to the day about when (Russian President Vladimir) Putin was going to invade Ukraine … We’ve all been pleasantly surprised and pleased that the Russians haven’t been successful. I think these Ukrainian people have been remarkable. I think (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky over there has been remarkable.”

Lucas then spoke of her opposition to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s calls to eliminate Virginia’s grocery tax and suspend the state’s gas tax.

“I see a lot of what’s happening now as a gimmick,” Lucas said.

Her reason for opposing the measures, she said, was because the pandemic-related federal funds the state received in 2021 likely wouldn’t be recurring.

“I feel like to cut any gas tax is going to put us in a position where we’re going to have to start maybe tolling other roads to try to make sure we can keep up with all the infrastructure needs that we have,” Lucas said. “To cut the sales tax on groceries, and I know that comes across as a bad thing for us to say, but then it’s going to put localities in a bad place … when you cut the sales tax on something like groceries, you’re really not helping low-income people all that much. You’re helping people who are wealthy enough to go into the grocery store and buy whatever they want to buy.”