Legislative Q and A: As session begins, Wilt prepares for budget, ERA, absentee voting and gun debates

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Virginia Delegates and state senators will convene in Richmond starting today for the 2020 General Assembly. The 60-day session will include crafting and debating a two-year budget, starting with the initial draft Gov. Ralph Northam proposed. His suggestion contains more than $3 billion in net spending over the next two years.  

Meanwhile, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, will return to Richmond for his ninth year in the legislature. It will, however, be his first time servingin the minority party after Democrats took control of the House and Senate in November’s election. 

Wilt told The Citizen in an interview that he doesn’t like to commit on how he would vote on specific pieces of legislation — such as what the Democrats filed as HB2 that would impose universal background checks on gun purchases — until he could see the final language. Last month, he and 25th District Delegate Chris Runion (R-Bridgewater) discussed their overall approach to gun owner rights and gun safety in response to questions at a town hall held last week

However, there are a lot more issues the General Assembly will be taking up. Last week, Wilt spoke with The Citizen about how he expects to approach key issues, whether it’s the Equal Rights Amendment, the commonwealth’s budget, what’s next with I-81, what it will be like serving in the minority and what he views as a threat of “radicals.”

Republican Del. Tony Wilt, left, of the 26th District that includes Harrisonburg talks with constituents at a Dec. 30, 2019, town hall in Bridgewater.

Q: This is going to be a budget session, what are your top priorities for local and state funding in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County?

Wilt: Well, generally the same ones they always are. We’d like to see some adequate funding and hopefully an increase for our schools, which our governor’s budget has in there. Then we’d like to see more money for public safety, for law enforcement, transportation — the basic core functions we’re supposed to be about. Hopefully there’s adequate funding and increases where possible. 

What do you hope for the budget for the state overall?

What I said for the area is what I would want for the state. Now, obviously there may be particular areas that have different challenges, and you know we need to take a look at those. The main thing is, it needs to be a fiscally sound budget. I’ve gotta be honest, I haven’t crunched the numbers, but with this budget, we’re spending another $3 billion over the last budget. I know the governor has proposed some cuts and different things, but then turned around and added on in another area. So I don’t know if we’re trading dollars or if there are increases in those various areas. I’m disappointed. Last year we had a good budget, and we gave back a tax refund from extra monies that all Virginia taxpayers paid in, and we were able to give some of that back. And we were going to do that again this year, but the governor has chosen to spend that money. So obviously that’s disappointing. But the upside is the economy is doing better and there are more discretionary funds there, so at the end of the day, we hope that it’s fiscally sound. And it has to be, that’s the good thing about our state it has to be a balanced budget. But I hope that we don’t increase the spending and create an undue burden on the taxpayers of Virginia. 

You mentioned that Governor Northam decided this year to spend the money that would have been allocated for the tax returns like the ones we received in October. What was he planning on spending that on this year?

I don’t know that he has that dollar amount earmarked for any particular thing. He’s increased spending in a lot of areas – you’re looking at the criminal justice side, on education. It’s a pretty wide range of things that he’s increased spending. He’s spreading it out across the board, pretty much. 

Attorney General Mark Herring said on record that the recent Second Amendment sanctuary proclamations from Virginia cities and counties would be useless. Beyond the message these proclamations send to Richmond, do you believe they will impact potential gun control legislations at the General Assembly?

I would like to think so. I would like to think that many citizens across the state of Virginia have come out to make a statement as localities, have held public hearings, and adopted resolutions as they have. I would certainly think and hope that the attorney general, the governor, the legislators would take that into consideration and say: “look, this is an important issue to a lot of citizens around the state,” and consider that as they’re pondering legislation on how it might be altered or maybe even not passed altogether. I think they’re very useful in helping send a strong message. And for the localities, the whole sanctuary language comes out of what we’ve seen in the past. Some localities have declared themselves as sanctuary cities, primarily as opposed to their relationship with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Let’s be honest, that’s where the whole moniker came from. But looking at that, and then looking at this, that’s not comparing apples to apples. We have our constitutional rights, and for a state to come in and pass laws that are contrary to the constitution is very strong. From what I’ve seen, that’s what Rockingham County has passed and that’s what other localities have passed, saying “no, we’re gonna go with what our U.S. Constitution says ahead of what some politicians may be trying to say.” Back on the sanctuary for illegal immigrants and so forth, that was already a law that folks were choosing not to adhere to. And there’s a distinct difference. The irony is the attorney general, on one hand, says that’s okay to disobey what the law is, and then on the other hand says you can’t do it in this instance. It’s absurd. That’s the height of hypocrisy to make both of those statements, as I would interpret he intended those. In my definition, there’s a difference. We have a constitution, that’s the basis of our laws and our rights, and theses localities are saying “we’ll stand by that.” 

Democrats are making voting rights an issue, and there are specific measures to allow for easier absentee voting that doesn’t require an excuse, that legislation is HB1. I know you said earlier that you couldn’t say how you would vote on a specific bill at this point, but how do you see that bill fairing in the General Assembly?

Well, let’s be honest. Now that the Democrat Party has control of both the U.S. House and Senate and the governor’s mansion, they can do what they wanna do. But on that bill in particular, I’m all for qualified citizens to be able to vote. I’m not about disenfranchising anyone. But I know it’s not doing any harm to just have some basic requirements of folks in order to vote. What else of substance can we do that’s not required of a photo ID? And what’s more precious to us than our right to vote and to be able to make sure simply that you are who you are when you show up at that polling place? Again, I haven’t seen a bill yet, but it’s already very easy to vote absentee. I don’t know how much further they want to unwind that, and what the potential problems could be. That would be my concern of unwinding it further. We’ve done a lot of exemptions already, and I think we need to tread very carefully of eliminating any and all requirements to vote.   

The Equal Rights Amendment is also going to be coming up for a vote this session. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s disappointing to me that this has become such a hot button issue. For a lot of educated people, the fact is – the way I see it and understand it – there is no amendment to be ratified by the states at a federal level. Back in the ‘70s when this occurred, there was a deadline it was written with a deadline. And that deadline came, and that deadline was extended, and that put it up into the early ‘80s somewhere in there, and it was a hard deadline then. It was not ratified by that deadline, subsequently. That means there is no ERA Amendment properly before the states. I know some of the greatest legal minds have argued both ways on this, and I’m not a lawyer, but just from a very practical standpoint, that’s where it’s at. Please understand, I’m all for women’s rights. I believe they should have the same rights as men, and the Fifth Amendment (and) the Fourteenth take care of that. But I’ve gotta be honest, and it’s been proven there are those that would have it to be used for extending and wiping out any limitations we have on abortion. We’ve seen that happen in states that have adopted it into their state constitution, that’s one of the purposes they’ve used it for. So that’s very telling. From what I understand we haven’t seen movement at the federal level to bring back another amendment, and that was one of the pieces of discussion to write one that’s more directly worded, and the other side, who wanted it the way it is refused, and that’s telling as well. To further substantiate my position, I believe it wasn’t too far back when Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg said we need to go back to the drawing board to write another one, because there isn’t one. So just from a practical standpoint, I think it’s not a valid vote to be taken. 

(Editor’s Note: Wilt was referring to the remarks Ginsburg made in September at Georgetown University law school as reported by the National Law Review.)

I-81 on a snowy day in December 2018. (File photo)

I’d like to transition to something a little more local – I-81. Right now, are there any bills being introduced this session that you know that you would support. What would you like to see happen?

To answer your first question, I don’t know of anything related to I-81 that’s going to be introduced this year, and I think we did a pretty good job of it last year. And we have to remember, we call it the I-81 bill, but there was a pretty good chunk of money in there for I-66, I-95, I-64, and there was another pool of money for “other.” We’ve gotta remember that bill was not just beneficial to I-81, it was beneficial the whole state. So yeah, I think we did a good job with that. But I don’t know of anything else that coming down the line that would pertain to I-81.  

Based on what you’ve heard from your constituents, is there anything you hope to do to improve I-81 in the future, in this particular section of the corridor through Harrisonburg and Rockingham County?

According to the VDOT plan – which I’m excited about – we’re in the collection phase now. And we’ve actually started, some of the low hanging fruit, the simpler, easier things to do, such as signage and that kind of thing. But what folks are really looking for – such as moving dirt and turning rocks – that won’t happen for at least another year or two. I made that statement and VDOT was quick to not let me pin them down on that, because life happens, you never know what can change. But the game plan is, and I’m excited that our area is right at the top of the list that will get some serious dirt moved so to speak once we have some adequate funding. We have some bridge replacements coming. So there are some things definitely slated to happen, and it’s in our area and we’re right there at the top of the list and excited for it to happen.   

I’d also like to talk about any potential legislation that would impact small businesses in Harrisonburg. Are there any you know of right now, or any issues you would like to see become a priority in the General Assembly? 

We’re gonna need to continue to take care of small businesses, and we do that by not having overbearing costs passed on to them in the form of taxes, but also the overall regulatory burden. All of those things cost money to a small business, and some of the things that were touted, such as eliminating the right to work law and raising the minimum wage. Those things are especially harmful to small businesses, potentially. When the economy’s healthy it becomes a worker’s market. We’re all in this to better ourselves, to take care of our family to have a nice home, nice vehicle, to live our lives as comfortable as we can. Right now, the economy is great and that’s what we need to see. That’s what we need to expand. 

Mark Obenshain and wife, Suzanne, and Tony Wilt and wife, Vickie, thank everyone who helped them with their re-election campaigns in November 2019. (FILE PHOTO)

This year, you and state Sen. Mark Obenshain will be working in the minority party. Ultimately, how do you feel about that and the impact it will have on the issues you are concerned with, as well as your constituents? 

I don’t like it, but that’s the system we’ve got. The people’s voices were heard, and it is what it is. And in a strange way, we’ve gotta celebrate that. Now that being said, I’ve tried hard to not base votes. Because we have some much bipartisan legislation, I’ve voted with the Democrats a lot. In a number of those bills, very few of it is partisan, and the votes are based on the issue. I vote on a bill on its merits. It doesn’t matter whether it’s democrat or republican. If it’s a lousy bill, and you’re a Republican, then I’m sorry, I’m gonna vote against your lousy bill. That’s how I’ve always tried to do business, and that’s how I’ll continue – to take each bill on its merits and go from there. 

In November, you were quoted in an article by The Citizen, where you asked: “Will the moderate Democrats be willing to stand up for what they see as right for the state of Virginia or are they going to keep their head down and not say anything out of fear of retribution from the more radical liberal progressives that are infiltrating the party?” Is the idea of radical progressives in the party still a concern? 

Yes. Now, I don’t know this newest group of freshman Democrats or their positions, but time will tell where they shake out. Both parties have their really radical folks that are way out there, but it’s a new day for the Democrat Party, because there are a lot of mainstream Democrats. We always differ on a few of the issues, but by and large we could come together and work. But I see some folks representing the Democrat Party that don’t appear by what they say and what they do that’s the way they want to do business. And how far reaching that is, time will tell.

How would you define “radical” in this instance?

Radical to me are the ones who claim to be Democratic socialists. The whole idea of socialism flies in the face of everything our nation believes in. If you want us to become a socialist nation, then you are not committed to our nation. We are not perfect, but we always need to improve. But we’ve had folks currently and folks in the past, our relatives and family and friends who have fought and died and served other countries to prevent them to fall under the hand of that kind of tyranny. To see that infiltrate here in our state and our own nation, that is beyond the pale. That is unacceptable to me. 

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