House District 26 Candidates discuss key election issues: Part II

Repulican incumbent Del. Tony Wilt, at left, has represented Harrisonburg in the House of Delegates since 2010. He is being challenged by Democrat Brent Finnegan for the second time. Photo illustration by Holly Marcus

Story by Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor // Photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 28 to include responses from both candidates. Their responses are printed in full below in italicized text.

The Virginia House of Delegates’ 26th District includes the entire city of Harrisonburg, along with the northwest portion of Rockingham County. The Citizen interviewed both candidates contesting this seat – Republican incumbent Tony Wilt and Democratic challenger Brent Finnegan – about some of the key issues in the race. We are publishing their responses to our questions in three parts. The first was published on Oct. 24. The second runs today, and the final one tomorrow. The candidates’ answers are presented verbatim, and neither saw his opponent’s response before answering. Both will be given the opportunity to add to their original answers below – or to respond to their opponents’ answers. Therefore, this story may be updated, as Part I already has been.

The Citizen: What is your position on raising the minimum wage?

Del. Tony Wilt

Del. Tony Wilt: I am against raising the minimum wage. It occasionally happens, incrementally, and we adjust to it. It goes hand-in-hand with this “living wage” thing. That’s not an incremental increase. That’s a huge increase. That’s a huge impact. Who’s paying it? The wage payer. The businesses. As it is presented, I am against that. Everybody likes to talk about protecting the small businesses, but this is catastrophic to small businesses.

A prime example: The [Friendly City Food Co-op] downtown, there was a great article in the newspaper where they were able to raise their wages for their employees. And what stuck out to me is there was a sentence in there by the manager and, I’m paraphrasing, but basically the comment was “We were able to do that as a business.”

They got to the place that they were financially secure enough that they could do that. Now picture, what happens to that same business if they had their business model, they started out, and they know how many employees they need to cover the shifts – they’ve worked out their business plan – and the government comes in and says “Boom. You’ve got to raise those wages to X amount.” What does that do to their business model? They’re not prepared. [Starting out] they’re not making enough profit to build that in.

There’s only so many options in a business. So if you have an added increase, you’re immediately going to have to add it into the cost of your product or your service. If you’ve been priding yourself on being competitive with your price, you’ve lost your edge with your competitors. Or, another option is going to be that you’re going to have to cut your expenses somewhere. That expense that has been artificially added by the government wasn’t in your business plan, and it’s an additional to the business, so you’re going to have to cut somewhere. Are you going to cut the quality of your product? Are you going to have to cut people?

That’s what happened out in Washington [state]. They jumped on this bandwagon that they were going to raise [the minimum wage] up. They cost workers’ hours. There were workers that lost their hours. There was a pay decrease by a hundred and fifty bucks or so a month. Studies show that they probably cost 5,000 jobs in Seattle. That was the practical effect [of a minimum wage increase]. That’s just the facts.

We’ve seen it over the years. We get handed down a nominal increase and companies get time to adjust. But tying it in to what liberal progressives call a “living wage” and what that living wage is for any given area, it’s not a nominal increase. It would be devastating to businesses.

Brent Finnegan

Brent Finnegan: I think one way of doing it is, find the place in Virginia where you have the lowest cost of living and say what is the living wage for a single adult in that area? Can we raise the minimum wage to that amount? And I agree with the naysayers who say “$11 [an hour] in southwest Virginia is not $11 in Arlington.” Okay, if Arkansas can raise their minimum wage to $11 an hour, which they did last year, Virginia can do the same. Give local governments the authority to further raise it at the local level as they see fit. That seems to address some of the issues that people are talking about competitiveness and regional cost of living differences. It goes back to empowering local communities to strengthen their communities and also decide their own destiny and decide what they want their community to look like. To me it’s also about letting that play out in those local communities to see [what happens]. Then, if Fairfax decides to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, let’s see some studies of what that did for the people and the businesses there. There’s this kind of myth that if you raise the minimum wage all businesses are going to close. No.

There is something in economics that’s called “the velocity of money.” That just says, how fast is money moving through the economy? How fast is it circulating? And right now it is not circulating very well, because people are making $7.25 or $9 an hour or whatever they’re making and that is all going towards their rent. They don’t have money to spend in local businesses. So that hurts the local economy. So this idea that there should be no minimum wage, I reject that.

Finnegan responds to Del. Wilt’s answer: My opponent talks about a living wage like it’s a ridiculous idea that people who work full time should be able to raise a family and afford healthcare without going bankrupt. He again failed to even talk about the 50% of people who live in our district who are in poverty or work hard every day and struggle to get by. I don’t know if he’s not aware of the problem or just doesn’t care. There are solutions, like I mentioned that would gradually increase the minimum wage that would make people’s lives better without hurting small businesses.

Del. Wilt elaborates on his initial answer: I want to see wage increases, but that occurs naturally when we have a strong economy and employers must compete to gain and retain good employees. Having a quality and accessible education system, particularly as it relates to career and technical education, is also another means for individuals to improve their circumstances and command a higher wage. There is a shortage of workers in numerous high demand, high paying fields where a four-year degree is not required. The General Assembly has made an effort to provide opportunities for individuals to obtain the skills and credentials necessary to meet these workforce needs (through programs like the Workforce Credential Grant). I support maintaining and expanding these opportunities for citizens.

Artificial, government-mandated wage hikes do not occur in a vacuum. There will be consequences. In a strong economy, maybe most folks can keep their jobs, but will hours be cut? This is what seems to have happened for Target employees according to recent reports. They are taking home less in their paycheck, even with the higher wage. It causes wage compression issues for those that perhaps have been somewhere longer and make a slightly higher wage. Everyone’s buying power is reduced because of the necessary cost increases of goods. At the end of the day, artificial wage mandates hurt those it’s supposed to help.  

What is your position on Virginia ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment?

Finnegan: The ERA, the original amendment, was written in 1921, and a decade later, the wording was changed to what it is now. I don’t agree with [former] Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia very often, but I do agree with Scalia that gender is not protected in the U.S. Constitution. It should be, and I think Scalia was against the idea of an ERA, but we need protection for everyone in the Constitution. As we work towards gender equality in the United States the idea that Virginia is the stumbling block to that legislation becoming ratified…

There are constitutional scholars who disagree about the statute of limitations expiring [for the ERA to be ratified] and what’s the next step? But we can do our part and put our missing piece there and then let the courts and Congress decide what to do with that. But it’s dragged on long enough. If a Supreme Court justice is saying gender is not protected in the Constitution then we need to address that and make sure that it is enshrined in the Constitution.

Absolutely, I support [the ERA] as written. It’s been used as some kind of boogie man tactic about abortion. Alice Paul wrote it. Alice Paul was adamantly against abortion. To say that this is some sort of sneak attack from pro-choice advocates is just absurd, especially when you look at the history of the amendment and who wrote it and why. It was labor unions that actually opposed it for about 40 years.

In the event that the national Equal Rights Amendment doesn’t pass I would support and favor putting it in our state constitution, certainly.

Wilt: I am all for women’s rights and equality across the board. Please understand that. But the absolute reality of the Equal Rights Amendment is that there is no amendment properly before the U.S. Congress. There is what I believe is legal presence that it can’t be [ratified] because it expired. It was put forth back in the ’70s. The time ran out and there was an extension. That ran out. And it was never properly before the body [Congress]. Recently Justice Ginsberg, arguably one of the most liberal justices on the Supreme Court, was speaking at Georgetown Law School and she said that the supporters [of the ERA] were going to have to start over with the process, because it is not properly before the body. It’s just that simple. So it’s disingenuous, to me, that folks are out there promoting it. It’s just not a reality. The process needs to be started over at the Federal level, so there’s just nothing there for the states to ratify.

I think it needs to be rewritten. My main concern is the unintended consequences of the way it is written now. It basically throws open all possible limitations on tax-funded abortions and that’s my primary concern. And the proof is, we’ve seen that from other states that have ratified it and they’ve adopted it into their own state constitutions. And they have used that then to fight their own state regulations, their own state restrictions. The proof is there that that’s what it would be used for. Back when they were [originally] trying to ratify it that was brought up. “Hey, if you would address this language, we would be more inclined to support it.” But the pro-abortion people wouldn’t budge. So it kind of tells me that it is in there, it’s an integral part, and I would not support it.

Finnegan elaborates on his initial response: Just to clarify my statement regarding the unions and the ERA. While some unions were adamantly against the ERA, others were longtime supporters.

Del. Wilt elaborates on his initial response: I would like to clarify my initial response, I think I indicated the ERA is not properly before Congress. To be clear, it’s not properly before the states for ratification.

Proponents of the ERA can say it has nothing to do with abortion, but it does, at least in its current form. Again, state-level ERA’s have been successfully used to strike down reasonable regulations, and in particular restrictions on taxpayer funding. Are they so naive to think the same effort would not occur at the federal level? The  5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution already make clear no person shall be denied equal protection under the law. Existing state and federal law afford additional protection against pay and other discrimination. That said, I would have no problem supporting an Equal Rights Amendment as long as it contained neutralizing language on abortion in particular and adequately addressed some of the other potential unintended consequences that are often discussed (female military service, women’s sports and scholarships, etc.).  If supporters say it has nothing to do with abortion, then what’s the harm including language stating as much? 

What, if any, forms of gun control need to be enacted in Virginia?

Wilt: One thing that doesn’t need to be done is politicizing the issue and that’s exactly what the Governor did and a lot of these folks that jumped on the bandwagon after the tragedy in Virginia Beach. We need only to refer back to the Virginia Tech tragedy. When that happened, then-Governor Kaine, a Democratic governor, formed a commission to look into what happened and see where we came up short as a state. What were we missing? And there was some good legislation that came out of that and things that got implemented to fix some of the shortfalls that were seen there.

And that’s what we did during this special session. Emotions were running high. We didn’t kill any bills. The bills were tabled and the bills were sent to the Crime Commission. The Governor, the Attorney General and the legislature all have a seat at the table, to look at the bills that were put forward, but also to have the opportunity to develop other ideas that were put forward. We did the right thing. I know a lot of people didn’t understand it and it made them mad. Some people did understand it and they agreed. Let’s don’t move forward on emotion. Let’s look at the facts. And one of the things that we were looking for was the investigation from Virginia Beach. They still haven’t released that. They still haven’t come forward with their findings of what happened and what caused it.

How are you going to fix something if you don’t know the cause of it? To say “It’s just guns. It’s just the background checks…” That’s not the way to move forward on something as important as this – to grasp at things and throw them out there and pass a law that does not effectively bring about the change that you are trying to establish. The noise suppressor. The firearm ban in public. The fact is that a lot of those things are already in place in Virginia Beach. And it still happened. So the Governor had to admit, in front of a group of high school boys that were astute enough to say “Wait a minute. Will any of this help?” The Governor admitted all of these things [his gun control proposals] would not have stopped the tragedy that happened at Virginia Beach.

Finnegan: I would look to where the majority of the consensus is and right now the consensus is around universal background checks and closing the “gun show loophole” and banning the sale of assault weapons and banning high-capacity magazines. And those are the three that the majority of Virginias are behind, including quite a few Republicans.

I’d be open to a voluntary buy-back program. In terms of an involuntary buy-back, the guns that are out there are out there. At the state level I think you’re entering shaky territory when you try to do some mandatory buy-back program, because things can easily go across state lines.

When it comes to, “Oh, that won’t prevent all gun violence,” I agree. Seatbelts and airbags don’t prevent all automobile deaths, but it would be absurd to say, “Let’s take out the seatbelts and airbags out of cars because they don’t prevent all deaths.” They prevent some deaths and that is the best we can do right now. There are things we can do while respecting the Second Amendment and I think we should take some action and save some lives. Do what we can to take action on this. It’s been too long of people just not taking action. I’m not under the illusion that this will prevent all gun deaths, but we can do what we can to prevent as many as we can.

Right now there is the “gun show loophole.” So if I’m selling a gun on Craigslist and you buy it that’s totally legal and we don’t have to register that. If I go to a gun show and I can just walk in there and get a gun and there is no background check.

What good is the [background check] law if there is a huge loophole in it where hundreds of people come in to these expo centers and just buy guns? We need to make sure that everyone is passing background checks and that includes person-to-person sales. There is an easy way to register that sale. ‘I have this gun. I sold it to this person.’ There are easy ways to do that. Other states do. Anytime one human being is selling or giving a firearm to another human being that should be registered.

That’s also why we need to decriminalize non-violent offenses, like marijuana. If you’re selling marijuana, you lose your gun rights for life? If you’re not convicted of a violent crime, you’ve never had a gun in the commission of a crime, should you lose your gun rights because of that? I think that needs reform as well, just to make sure that’s fair and reasonable that the punishment fits the crime. If you’re threatening people’s lives and you have a gun then probably you should lose your gun, but if you have a conviction on your record from 20 years ago that had nothing to do with firearms, shouldn’t you be allowed to purchase a firearm? I think so.

I hope to work with other legislators in neighboring states. That’s kind of what RGGI [the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] is. It’s about states kind of banding together and saying, “Let’s have the same policies here.” Well, I think the same would apply to gun laws. Can we get on the same page here so people are not going to North Carolina and buying a gun and bringing it back.

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