Roanoke Times: Interstate 81, improving economy take focus at forum with House of Delegates candidates

Roanoke Times: Interstate 81, improving economy take focus at forum with House of Delegates candidates

When people go to the polls Nov. 6 to vote in the special election to fill the vacant seat in the Virginia House of Delegates’ 8th District, both candidates say voters will choose between two philosophies about the role of government.

Republican Joe McNamara said that with his experience as a businessman and two decades of service on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, there are limitations to what government can and should provide, and the budget plays a crucial role in that.

“You can’t promise solutions to everything with a finite set of resources,” McNamara said Wednesday at a candidates forum.

Democrat Carter Turner said the government should address issues such as broadband, education, opioid addiction and transportation.

“Government doesn’t have to be involved in everything, but things it should be involved in, it ought to do effectively,” said Turner, who lives in Glenvar and is the associate director of advancement at Radford University. “Strong government can help businesses, it can help stabilize communities.”

The two appeared for the first time together since Greg Habeeb resigned from the seat in July. The 8th District includes Salem, Craig County and parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties.

The forum, sponsored by the Roanoke Regional Chamber, focused on topics of interest to businesses, such as workforce development, transportation and health care. WDBJ (Channel 7) senior reporter Joe Dashiell served as moderator.

Sixth Congressional District candidate Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, was also at the forum at The Patrick Henry in downtown Roanoke, but his opponent was not. Democrat Jennifer Lewis’ campaign manager said last month it seemed “unreasonable” for two debates to be before a corporate audience. Cline and Lewis will debate Oct. 22 at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.

“I’m running to get government out of your pockets, get out of the way of your businesses,” Cline said. “It’s the business community that’s creating jobs, not government.”

Turner has made Interstate 81 the top issue of his campaign because of the safety issues involving so much truck traffic and crashes. He said there are numerous ways to make improvements, such as adding a third lane and adjusting ramps. He floated numerous ideas for funding it, including federal grants, tolls for commercial vehicles or a tax on diesel fuel.

“Inaction is not an option at this point,” Turner said.

McNamara said “we’re in a dream world” to think all of I-81 could be three lanes. He said improvements along the interstate can be made through legislators, regional leaders and the transportation board working together. He touted his and Cline’s efforts to get a third lane funded between Exit 140 and 141 in Roanoke County.

Cline said I-81 is the “economic backbone of the 6th Congressional District.” He said some improvements have been made along I-81, such as widened lanes in Rockbridge County that have helped reduce bottle-necking. Still, he said “we have outgrown our current I-81.”

“The federal government needs to contribute a fair share to improve I-81,” he said.

With the U.S. Supreme Court opening the door for states to collect more sales taxes from internet retailers, Virginia faces a windfall of $250 million to $300 million in annual state revenue. Turner said he favored some of that money going toward modernizing schools and improving highways like I-81. McNamara said legislators needs to weigh the needs first before earmarking revenues.

The two candidates agreed in some ways. They said the opioid crisis could be better responded to by empowerment at the local level where services are provided. They also said there needs to be improved relationships between K-12 schools, community colleges and workforce training, and employers to boost workforce development.

McNamara wants to bring his experience in managing a budget to Richmond. He said health care is one of the top issues that businesses talk about.

McNamara said the increase in spending on health care has chewed away at funding for areas such as education and agriculture. Medicaid spending comprises about 23 percent of Virginia’s budget.

“We’re draining our critical and important revenue sources by expanding an entitlement, and continuing to enlarge Obamacare in Virginia,” he said.

McNamara and Turner don’t have any additional debates scheduled at this time.

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