Governor Northam, in Southwest Va., talks coding, casinos and more


Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Tuesday visited the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) in Abingdon to view an exhibition by kindergartners through fifth graders who have been learning coding through the Southwest Virginia STEM Academy, held at the (SVHEC). The children have each learned to use iPads to program drones to autonomously perform a series of tasks. The program is the only one in Virginia that teaches children coding even before they know how to read.

The governor took a break from being taught coding by kindergartners to meet with the media, discussing a variety of topics.

On whether he would sign a bill allowing casinos to operate in Virginia: “Part of the General Assembly’s job is to vet these processes, so we put some money back in the budget this year for a study. I’ve let the process move through the General Assembly. If it gets through the Senate and financed and gets through the House to my desk, I’ll take a look at it. You know, we’re – I’m open to the casinos, but if we do it, we want to do really do it the right way. So this may be – we may want to do a study and look at the finances of it – look at the social implications and look at the regulations. There is a lot involved and this will be a very complicated process. We just want to be responsible and do it the right way. So that’s how the process could unfold.

On whether that means a delay beyond 2019: “It could be. It depends on how it ends up on our desk. But they’re vetting through that now. That’s the way the process works. It’s a good process and I am in daily communication with the folks in the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle. You know, the concept – and the reason I am open-minded to it – is that we have a lot of resources and a lot of people that go into other states, and if that’s something they enjoy, we would like to keep that revenue here in Virginia. But if we do that, we want to do it in the right way.

On pushback against charging tolls on Interstate 81 to pay for needed improvements: Well, again, that is another process. We have identified over the past year about $2.2 billion in improvements for I-81. It’s a very heavily travelled road. A lot of trucks use it and it is becoming more and more dangerous. I think people from both sides of the aisle, especially legislators from communities along the I-81 corridor, know we need to make some improvements. Now we just need to figure out how to pay for that $2.2 billion. There’s talk of tolls. There’s talk about regional taxes. There’s talk about a statewide tax. So again, this is the way the process works. We’ll see what they come up with. I hope at the end of the day, we’ll have what we need because I-81 is in desperate need of improvements. That’s very, very important to the economy of the southwest.

On whether a plan with tolls deters interstate commerce: No, I don’t think so. I think the main thing is, we want to be fair. We want to be fair to people that live in Virginia. We need to be fair to people who live along I-81, who need to use it every day. We have looked at an annual pass for those individuals. And we want to be fair to the trucking industry. We need their business coming through Virginia. So, it’s a process that’s ongoing right now, and I think at the end of the day, we will be able to find the resources to make improvements to I-81 and that’s really what our goal is.

On whether his administration would make investments in rural Virginia the way it did in Northern Virginia for Amazon: Our unemployment rate in Virginia right now is at 2.8 percent, which is the lowest it’s been in 17 years, but it’s not 2.8 on the eastern shore, where I’m from or the south side or southwest. So, we are really working hard to lift up all Virginia. I’ve talked about broadband today and I-81 improvements. As far as Amazon, the commitment we made to Amazon is very innovative. Over 70 percent of it is investment in Virginia – investment in workforce training, investment in transportation and infrastructure and investment in affordable housing. So, especially the workforce training part of it will benefit all of Virginia. Colleges and universities like Radford and Virginia Tech will be able to take advantage of the resources we’ll be investing. So, I hear what you’re saying about Amazon, but it’s really an investment in Virginia. Whether it’s Amazon or any other company that’s interested in Virginia, we really need to be able to train the workforce. Again, that’s why it is so important to be here today with these children, to teach them the importance of computer science, learning to code at an early age and really preparing them for these 21st century jobs.

On whether his administration would be equally committed to job growth opportunities in Southwest Virginia: Absolutely. We just looked this past week – I have made over 100 trips now to rural Virginia. I’m from rural Virginia. I understand the challenges that we have. We’ve got three years left in this administration and we’re going to do everything we can to lift up rural Virginia to bring it back because when we help rural Virginia, we’re really helping all of Virginia.

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