By Carol Vaughn — Sen. Lynwood Lewis held a town hall Thursday, July 21, at Eastern Shore Community College to discuss the recent legislative session and to hear from constituents.
Additional town hall meetings will be held later in Chincoteague and the Cape Charles area.
Lewis said the state budget “is the most important thing we do.”
The biennial budget work is done in even years, including this year.
Among highlights of the budget the General Assembly approved is a 5% raise for teachers in each of the two years, along with a $1,000 bonus per teacher.
All state employees and law enforcement will get a raise, as well.
Additionally, the budget includes $1.25 billion for school construction — there is an estimated backlog of needed school construction of $18 billion, Lewis said.
“A good portion of our school buildings in most districts are over 50 years old, so it’s a real issue, but that is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Additionally, the budget includes tax cuts, with the standard deduction doubled for single and married individuals.
Taxpayers also will receive a tax rebate this fall — $250 to every individual or $500 to every couple.
Among the major issues the General Assembly dealt with this year was marijuana legislation, with legislators failing to come to an agreement on how to construct the regulatory environment for marijuana sales.
“It is important to regulate it” because doing so could mean an estimated $350 million in annual tax revenue “once it’s commercialized,” according to Lewis.
Another highlight of the session was the creation of a revolving loan fund to help communities deal with climate change resiliency and measures to deal with sea level rise, which resulted from legislation Lewis sponsored.
Additional legislation sponsored by Lewis that was approved included a bill creating a task force to examine the lifecycle of renewable energy projects and legislation limiting the period for an executive order to remain in place to 45 days, among others.
“This was a very good budget for the Eastern Shore,” Lewis went on to say.
The budget includes around $2 million for a cost of competing adjustment to help Accomack and Northampton school districts improve teacher pay to better compete with Maryland Eastern Shore schools.
The budget also includes money for dredging, including to purchase two pieces of dredging equipment, one of which is for the Shore; expansion of Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s sewer project to several towns; building improvements for the Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence campus; the Heritage Center at the new regional library; the Chincoteague inlet study; and a natural gas pipeline study, among other Shore projects.
Additionally, the budget includes a $45 million incentive package, $35 million of which is for infrastructure, for Rocket Lab, the company which announced it will launch two types of rockets from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.
Among questions Lewis fielded from constituents at the town hall were some about the commercial menhaden fishery, which came back into the limelight locally after a recent fish spill that affected parts of Northampton County’s shoreline.
A reported net break resulted in thousands of rotting fish carcasses washing up on Northampton shorelines starting July 2.
According to Ocean Harvesters, which harvests menhaden on behalf of Omega Protein, the fishing vessel with the net break was about a mile offshore from Silver Beach.
Christi Medice, of Silver Beach, said, “We need the menhaden fish in the bay. … They clean the bay. … What is it going to take to ask these menhaden boats to move off into the ocean? Is that even possible?”
Medice said she feels bad for people employed by the menhaden fishery who could lose their jobs if things change, but said, “We’re people, too. We’re losing money. … Is Omega going to pay us for what we lost?”
She said people who were renting places “had to leave Silver Beach because of the fish.”
Debbie Campbell, of Northampton, said, “The Chesapeake Bay is supposed to be protected. … Right now, Omega self-reports. How is that even possible?”
“Please do more and encourage your colleagues to pay attention to this,” she said to Lewis.
The menhaden fishery formerly was regulated by the General Assembly.
Lewis said in 2020 he “carried the bill that moved it (the menhaden fishery) over to VMRC (the Virginia Marine Resources Commission) for regulatory purposes.”
He said the VMRC is “just really getting started in the menhaden regulatory business. … We have to let it play out a little bit.”
Regarding the recent spill of Northampton County, Lewis said he would be meeting with the VMRC commissioner and Northampton Board of Supervisors Chairperson Betsy Mapp and Northampton County Administrator Charles Kolakowski to discuss the menhaden fishery and investigation into the spill.