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Smith Town Hall Meeting Touches On Arizona Shootings

State Senator Ralph Smith fields questions.

by Gene Marrano

State Senator Ralph Smith (22nd District, R-Botetourt County) was going to hold a town hall meeting via telephone but decided to do it in person after the Arizona shooting spree that left six dead and a congresswoman in critical condition.  He took the opportunity to express his view that “we overreact to things” when it comes to heightened security measures, after events such as the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and 9/11.

“My concern … is that we [don’t] go off in another direction,” said Smith, citing the inconvenience to travelers at airports since the September 11, 2001 attacks.  A uniformed Roanoke County police officer stood in one corner during the town hall meeting, which filled about half of the county’s meeting room at the administration building on Rt. 419, usually occupied by the Board of Supervisors.

In an interesting twist of fate, that panel had opted to add police security before the Tucson shootings. Smith pointed out the police presence was not something he had requested. “I’ll let others debate the merit of that,” he said. Vinton District supervisor Mike Altizer, who was also at the meeting, said the security was added “so people know they’ll come to a secure place.”

The former Mayor of Roanoke City, whose district covers Botetourt, most of Roanoke County and Salem, and is now in his fourth year as a state senator, then fielded questions from the audience.  One concerning the re-surveying of a bridge project gave Smith the opportunity to sound off on the reform of VDOT: “we’re still working on it,” said Smith of the transportation agency, “it needs work.”

Regarding the 1.45 billion in unused VDOT funds uncovered during an audit, Smith explained that some of that stems from funded projects that never got off the ground, and the money intended for those projects was not reallocated.

Virginia is much better off than many other states, budget-wise, said Smith, when queried about the Commonwealth’s level of debt.  “We’re not California,” he added, “[but] we need to be careful with our borrowing.”

Regardless of the party in charge, “spending has risen sharply over the past 20 years,” said Smith, who is well known for his frugal approach to politics during a term as Roanoke mayor. He also supports a bill that would place a proposed budget online for 72 hours before the General Assembly votes on it, allowing anyone to scrutinize it and have time to voice concerns.

Smith said lawmakers had all of 34 minutes after the last biennial budget was completed before the voting process began. “There may be surprises [in the bill] that you’re voting for.”  He has introduced the 72-hour bill twice and will do so again this session.

Brian Massey of Radford voiced his concerns about the rising costs of public education and the need for the General Assembly to support it. He pointed out education funding cuts two years ago.  “We must invest in education … is this all we can do?” asked Massey.

Smith said he supports public education but he would like to know why rising costs have far outstripped inflation in recent years, decrying “lavish” campuses for starters. “It becomes an edifice.”

Illegal immigration “has hurt a lot of Virginia’s jobs,” said Smith when asked about the topic. He also wants to see fewer regulations on small businesses and state funding for Planned Parenthood come to an end.

As for passenger rail service to and from Roanoke, Smith said, “I cheer that on … we’re all rail fans,” but he sees a connector bus to the Lynchburg Amtrak station as a better option financially at this time. “We could do that without spending a lot of money.” He’s not currently willing to support state subsidies for rail but could do so for the lower-cost bus service.

Smith does support the privatization of liquor stores in Virginia, adding that any loss of revenue will have to be made up somewhere else. Government should not be in that business, “but they have done a pretty good job of doing it,” he noted.

Smith also backs Governor Bob McDonnell’s proposal for state employees to contribute five percent towards their own retirement plans, something that is a standard practice in many states. Not all state employees agree, he conceded; “they think [it was] a promise in lieu of a pay raise.”

Susan Edwards of Salem, a state worker, said the idea to contribute something towards her own retirement rather than Virginia taxpayers picking up the entire tab, was “not an unreasonable request.” However Smith said he would not support any bill that amounts to a pay cut (McDonnell has proposed a 3% raise and a 2% bonus for state workers as an offset) but he can foresee a compromise.

Smith also pledged to hold more town hall meetings down the road. He is back in Richmond this week for the current General Assembly session.

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