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Virginia Economic Roundup: Uranium Mining in the Spotlight

As the Virginia General Assembly session begins, a bill that would end a moratorium on mining uranium ore has sparked debate between backers of the practice and citizens concerned with potential environmental effects.

Virginia Sen. John Watkins (R-Powhatan) is the sponsor of the bill, which is still being drafted. The main area in question is the Coles Hill uranium deposit in rural Pittsylvania County, near Chatham. Coles Hill contains an estimated 119 million pounds of uranium, the largest known deposit in the United States. The operation would be the first uranium mining and milling operation east of the Mississippi River.

The bill would place the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) in charge of licensing, with other departments, including mining, environmental and public health, in charge of regulations. Waste, known as tailings, would be stored in below-grade containment centers.

Opponents of the bill say unusual weather events could lead to contamination of public water supplies from that waste. Some municipalities oppose the bill on those grounds, including the state’s largest city, Virginia Beach, which draws its drinking water from Lake Gaston, not far from Coles Hill. This week, CommonHealthVA.org, a coalition of the bill’s opponents, gave its first press conference.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has not taken a stand on uranium mining. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has spoken out publicly against the practice.

Click here for a story from Slate with background on uranium mining and the Coles Hill site.

Report: Sequestration Could Cost Virginia More Than 200,000 Jobs

While legislation passed New Year’s Day kept the United States from going over the “fiscal cliff,” the country faces the potential for sequestration — across-the-board cuts in government spending — in another two months, with potential implications for Virginia’s economy.

During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2011, Virginia firms received more than 159,000 government contracts worth $42.8 billion, equivalent to 10 percent of the Commonwealth’s gross state product. Virginia received more contract awards than any other state.

According to a report from Chmura Economics & Analytics, sequestration could lead to a loss of 207,571 jobs in Virginia during fiscal years ending Sept. 30, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2013, with more than half coming from cuts to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Click here for an American Forces Press Service article on the potential impact of sequestration on DoD.

According to the report, Virginia employment growth likely would contract in 2013 if sequestration occurs.

Congress is expected to pass a budget that reduces spending by lower rates than those that would have occurred under sequestration.

McDonnell Aims to Eliminate Gas Tax

McDonnell has proposed replacing the Commonwealth’s 17.5 percent gas tax with an 0.8 percent increase in the state sales tax, which would raise Virginia’s sales tax rate to 5.8 percent.

McDonnell says that change, combined with other changes, will generate $3.1 billion in transportation funding over the next five years.

The gas tax has not been increased since 1986. McDonnell’s office said Virginia would become the first state to eliminate its gas tax.

Under current transportation maintenance funding, the state’s shortfall would result in $364 million being transferred from its construction account to pay for road maintenance during fiscal year 2013. Without new funding, that amount is expected to grow to $500 million by fiscal 2019. McDonnell says his plan will generate $844 million per year for transportation by fiscal 2018 and provide an additional $1.8 billion for highway construction over the next five years.

The motor fuels tax on diesel would remain unchanged due to heavy trucks’ disproportionately large impact on the condition of Virginia highways.

McDonnell’s transportation plan also includes:

  • In addition to the extra 0.8 percent gas tax dedicated to transportation, devoting another 0.25 cents of the current sales and use tax to transportation
  • Increase vehicle registration fees by $15, with the revenue going to intercity passenger rail and transit
  • Impose a $100 annual Alternative Fuel Vehicle Fee, with the revenues going to transit

Virginia Ranked 4th in Nation in Educational Quality

Education Week has ranked Virginia fourth in the United States in overall educational quality and performance, matching its 2012 ranking.

The journal’s Quality Counts 2013 report gave Virginia a B grade, which also matched last year’s grade. Maryland (B+) and Massachusetts and New York (B) were ranked ahead of the Commonwealth. Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, West Virginia and Kentucky round out the top 10.

Quality Counts grades are based on six criteria, with Virginia’s grade in parentheses:

  • The role of education in promoting success at various stages of life (B)
  • K-12 student achievement (C)
  • Rigor and quality of academic standards, assessments and accountability systems (A)
  • Teacher preparation, licensure and evaluation (B-)
  • School finance (C-)
  • Transitions and alignment of state policies related to school, college and workforce readiness (B)

Virginia Outdoors Foundation Protected More Than 26,000 Acres in 2012

According to a release from McDonnell’s office, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) protected 26,375 acres of open space through 127 conservation easements in 2012.

The VOF was established by the General Assembly in 1966 to encourage the preservation of Virginia’s natural areas. Last year, it recorded easements — voluntary agreements between private landowners and a qualified land trust that restrict future development — in 53 localities. Landowners who donate easements can receive federal and state tax benefits.

Smyth County in Southwest Virginia had the most open space protected, logging five easements covering a total of 2,569 acres. The VOF now protects about 675,000 acres in 107 localities, with 75 percent of that acreage lying within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

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