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March 20, 2018

Legislators Unite on Efforts to Strengthen Struggling Communities

Virginia’s 2018 regular legislative session has come to a close. While disappointing in some respects – legislators adjourned without having reached agreement on the 2018-2020 budget– it saw the birth of new, promising partnerships across regional and party differences. Legislators representing cities and rural communities found common ground in efforts to strengthen struggling communities and address the challenges of heightened poverty.

This alliance has been characterized as an unlikely partnership. Many of the legislators differ in terms of their political party, geographic region, time in office, race, and gender. Yet they share many of the same challenges in their communities such as increasing poverty, growing elderly populations, and economic stagnation.

For example, Lee County – the most southwest tip of the state – has the highest poverty rate (30 percent) of any city or county in the commonwealth, and the City of Petersburg – situated along the I-95 corridor  – has the highest school-aged child poverty rate (43 percent). Both localities have seen these rates grow over the past five years as their overall population and real wages have fallen or stayed flat.

With these shared challenges, legislators worked together in the 2018 legislative session on issues ranging from school funding to tax incentives to health care.

Together, delegates from Petersburg and Bristol City championed targeted investments for Virginia’s highest-poverty and hardest-to-staff schools. Democrats and Republicans supported a tax proposal that would benefit corporations in many southwest, southside, and eastern shore localities. The bill even had the support of some Northern Virginia delegates whose districts would not even directly benefit from its provisions.

Most significantly, legislators came together in new ways to address health care challenges. Delegate Terry Kilgore – representing the southwest tip of Virginia – called for the state to increase health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Virginians as an economic development tool for the region, joining delegates from urban communities who have long advocated for expanded health care access as a way to provide good jobs for Virginians as well as improve health outcomes. These are not just empty hopes – states that have expanded Medicaid have improved people’s access to health care and financial well-being, while helping to prevent hospital closures.

These collaborations across party lines are encouraging, but the work is not done.

Lawmakers did not reach agreement on the budget or the decision to accept federal funding to expand health care coverage. It’s important that legislators continue to look beyond party lines and divisive talking points, and look toward solutions that help the people in their communities.

It’s by investing in people’s education, healthcare, and infrastructure that we grow strong communities in which everyone may thrive.

Economic Opportunity

Chris Duncombe

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