EDINBURG – State and federal legislators returned home Friday afternoon for Shenandoah County’s annual legislators luncheon.
U.S. Congressman Ben Cline, R-Lexington, as well as State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and State Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, spoke with residents and business leaders about the latest happenings in Richmond and Washington, D.C.
Cline, a freshman congressman who replaced Bob Goodlatte, said the change from the functional capitol in Richmond to the dysfunctional Capitol Hill in D.C. has been a tough change.
“Virginia does it right,” Cline said about the part-time role every delegate and senator in Virginia plays. “You’re in it because you want to help your communities.”
Cline touted his conservative view of government as being the best for small, business-oriented communities. He said that while Washington tries to draw power into itself, he is focused on returning power to individual states and communities.
“We’ve got leadership that is not focused on keeping the economic success that we’ve got going,” Cline said about congressional leaders. “Not focused on ways they can help small businesses and help the community that provides jobs and provides support for communities.”
Obenshain and Gilbert both spoke about legislative efforts they’ve made to put money back into taxpayers’ pockets and protect the checkbooks of business owners at the same time.
Last year’s federal tax reform bill changed the way Virginians had to file this year, Obenshain said. While the reform removed reams of deductions and reduced the federal tax rate, Virginia’s rate held steady, meaning residents were saving on federal returns but would pay nearly $1 billion more in state taxes than last year, he said.
“What we did was we went back and collaboratively worked,” Obenshain said. “It started out being pretty partisan…then we rolled in and we proposed giving the money back to the taxpayers and providing ongoing tax relief.”
Obenshain said legislators passed the tax relief legislation close to unanimously, with emergency clauses, allowing them to make the new legislation effective for 2018 tax returns.
Gilbert said when it came to some other legislation, balancing workers and employers was important. He said he fought an attempt to abolish Virginia’s right to work law — which allows employees to join or not join a union.
“Having that freedom to work where you want without having to do that is certainly a central part of Virginia’s economic future,” Gilbert said.
Dennis Dysart, president of the county Chamber of Commerce, asked Gilbert and Obenshain about the attempt to raise Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Dysart said that some quick math — $5 per hour, over 2,000 hours in a year — shows small businesses spending roughly $10,000 per employee. Those increased costs could drive some businesses out of the market, Dysart said.
“We all want higher minimum wages in terms of we want our employees to earn more,” Obenshain said. “[But] the marketplace has to drive those up. The minimum wage in Fairfax might not be the appropriate minimum wage in Edinburg.”
While a strong anti-tax ethos rippled around the room, both from legislators and business leaders, Dysart did mention a possible meals tax coming to the county that he urged attendees to consider.
While every town up and down the county has a meals tax, the county itself has no such tax, Dysart said. County leadership is considering enacting a meals tax, but it will have to be via a referendum, which may appear later this year.
If the meals tax is passed, it will not stack on top of towns’ meals tax rates.
Dysart said he understands it’s hard for citizens to vote on taxing themselves, but he said to consider the alternatives — using real estate taxes to continue paying for county services or enacting a tax that is largely paid for by visitors and tourists. The meals tax in the works will raise somewhere between $440,00 and $460,000, Dysart said.
“If you choose not to implement a county meals tax, which would be largely funded by transient travelers,” Dysart said, “it’s effective a vote to say, ‘I want to pay 100 percent of the tax through real estate.’”