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Fact Check: More on McDonnell and Martinsville

Okay, politicos, gather around for another tour through Virginia's premiere sausage factory.

Last week, we rifled 10-year-old records of the Virginia General Assembly to shed light on the Democratic Party's claim that Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell ignored the plight of jobless textile workers in Martinsville.

It's a serious charge. The city has yet to recover from the collapse of the region's furniture and textile industries 10 years ago, as witnessed by an unemployment rate that hit 21.6 percent in June.

Fearlessly venturing into the Legislative Information System and the House Journal --which feels a little like making a study of sausage-making after it's already been through the disposal -- our Fact Check found that while McDonnell did vote against the emergency aid package for Martinsville's workers, the Democrats' charges also lacked some important context.

Now, Del. Robert D. Hull (D-Fairfax) wants you to know that there was another, little-noticed vote that also put McDonnell on record on the issue.

To recap: The Democratic Party, in an email last week, claimed that as a former delegate, McDonnell "stood against the workers in the area when textile plants shut down and left nearly 3,000 workers jobless." It said McDonnell voted against "a bipartisan emergency relief package" that would have provided enhanced jobless benefits, such as health insurance, for Martinsville's laid-off textile workers.

As we noted, the story begins with HB1369, known as the Textile Workers Relief Act of 2000. The bill--sponsored by Del. Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), who is the current minority leader--sought to help thousands of workers laid off by Tultex and other plants in December 1999. The bill promised to boost unemployment benefits and extend coverage for up to two years in localities suffering 10 percent unemployment, such as Martinsville.

The bill died in the House Labor and Commerce committee, of which McDonnell was not a member. A similar Senate bill also died in committee.

But Hull points out that, three days later, he and fellow Democrats tried a different tack, using a different bill. HB1443, which Hull sponsored, would have boosted the weekly jobless benefit for all unemployed Virginians by 27 percent to $294--a routine measure designed to bring benefits in line with prevailing wages at the time. That bill sailed out of committee.

But then, on the House floor, Hull invited Armstrong to revive the prospect of giving special aid to the textile workers in Martinsville by amending Hull's bill. The amended bill would have boosted weekly jobless benefits by 43 percent to a maximum $332--but only in especially hard-hit places such as Martinsville.

"We made no bones about the fact that this was trying to do the same thing as Armstrong's bill," Hull said.

The amendment passed 49-48, with Deeds voting for it and McDonnell voting against it. The entire bill then passed the House 53-45, again with Deeds among the yeas, and McDonnell among the nays. It died in the Senate, however.

It was then that Southside lawmakers took a shot at tweaking the state budget to aid the region, including offering an amendment that would have committed $7 million to buy health care insurance for laid-off textile workers in Martinsville.

But Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore was opposed. All along, Gilmore argued that lending a helping hand only to Martinsville textile workers would be unfair to other unemployed Virginians--or even to jobless textile workers outside Martinsville--and could cost as much as $364 million a year if it were applied to everybody out of work. Gilmore instead proposed using the money for economic development grants for Martinsville and other hard-hit areas.

When this alternative failed, Gilmore vetoed the measure altogether, angrily characterizing the legislative maneuvers as an effort to "mislead the workers of Martinsville into thinking that their Governor, by this veto, does not care about them."
McDonnell voted with Gilmore on the budget amendments.

McDonnell's campaign spokesman said last week that his boss was sympathetic to the problems Martinsville workers faced but felt that the commonwealth should address the problem in a way that treated all its citizens equally.

A debate on NAFTA, anyone?

Sources: Legislative Information Services; "Gilmore Vetoes Bill To Aid Workers" by Michael Hardy, Richmond Times Dispatch, May 20, 2000
Previous Fact Check:

By Anne Bartlett  |  August 20, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Fredrick Kunkle , Robert F. McDonnell  
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