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April 10, 2009

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, April 10, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

An area lawmaker was commended Thursday for supporting a proposed expansion of unemployment benefits despite overwhelming opposition from his party that defeated the legislation.

Del. Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, was praised by Gov. Tim Kaine during the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce's Annual Legislative Lunch.

Kaine said he gave Merricks credit for having the courage to vote his convictions.

The House's defeat of the legislation was largely because of the belief that employers would have had to pay more in taxes, according to published reports. Due to the defeat, the state will not receive an additional $125 million in federal stimulus funds.

Merricks and Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, were the only Republicans in the House who voted in favor of the legislation. Marshall did not attend the luncheon, held at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

"I see people who are hurting" because they are out of work, Merricks said, and as a lawmaker, "I try to do what is right, just and fair," even if it means breaking party lines.

House Minority Leader Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville, also praised Merricks for his vote, saying that breaking ranks from one's party is not easy. It shows courage and independence that is appreciated here, Armstrong added.

Armstrong called the legislation's defeat "a mistake," especially for Henry County and Martinsville.

With record unemployment locally, "if there was ever a time in which we needed an infusion of funding in this community," it is now, he said.

The chamber of commerce was opposed to the legislation. Jay Edelen, its board of directors chairman, said the chamber is in favor of the federal government providing stimulus funds but with "no strings attached."

Chamber officials think stimulus funds should not be used "at businesses' expense," added chamber President Amanda Witt.

According to a state Web site, Virginia is to receive about $4.8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

With the state having to make massive budget cuts in recent years due to revenue shortfalls, Virginia would be in worse shape than it is now without stimulus funds, said state Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway.

In Virginia, stimulus funds have "kept our economy from falling off a cliff," said 5th District U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Albemarle County, who also attended the luncheon even though he is a federal lawmaker.

Perriello, who has been in Congress since January, said that during the short time he has been in Washington, he has seen a lot of partisanship there.

Local officials and state lawmakers seem to work together better, regardless of whether they are Democrats or Republicans, he said.

Armstrong said that although the parties disagreed over extending jobless benefits, relations between Democrats and Republicans in state government are not as bad as some people think.

"Sometimes partisanship in Richmond is talked to excess," he said.

During the luncheon, Merricks noted that the General Assembly approved a bill he sponsored that lets economic development organizations extend performance agreements of companies if necessary.

Giving firms more time to meet hiring and investment requirements of those agreements "keeps them here and keeps them in business," he said.

In Henry County and Martinsville's case, "this is a hard-working, blue-collar community," Edelen said, and "we're working very hard" to retain jobs.

Reynolds said that even though Virginia has economic problems, it is in a better position to overcome its problems than some other states.

For instance, Virginia has been recognized as being the best managed state, and it was the only state to have two universities included in a Top 10 list of the best universities nationwide that recently was published, he said.

Reynolds noted other positive things about Virginia, such as it currently having its lowest crime rate since 1971. He said the rate is "dramatically lower" than crime rates in surrounding states.

Kaine said that despite high jobless rates locally, unemployment statewide is less than the national average, and Virginia's median income is higher than in many other states. "We've got many, many things to be proud of ... due to responsible leadership" in government, Reynolds said.