As I write this, it’s Groundhog Day 2024 and the Regular Session of the General Assembly is rapidly moving along. We are working quickly towards crossover, the day by which the Senate has to complete work on Senate bills and the House has to complete work on House bills. The legislation then crosses over to the other chamber.

The exception to the rule is the budget. Both the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee (SFAC) will meet on Sunday, February 18 to release their versions of the budget. We still have a lot of work to do.

The work is complicated because the Governor’s budget that was introduced in December is structurally imbalanced. What do I mean by that? The Governor proposed about $900 million in new taxes over the biennium. At the same time, he reduced revenue by cutting taxes by around $2 billion over the biennium. He has used nearly every gimmick in the book to move money around, in order to fund programs.

For example, one item in his spending plan that I support is the creation of a research triangle and investments in the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech to support research, create intellectual property, and generate thousands of new jobs over the long haul. The Governor has basically taken ongoing funding and turned it into one-time expenditures to jumpstart this idea. The problem is the ongoing money was going to fund programs at those schools over the long haul. That doesn’t mean that the idea for creating a research triangle is bad. Rather it means we just have a lot of work to do to make it happen. Similar problems are sprinkled throughout the budget.

Compounding the problem are changes in Medicaid enrollment. Since last April, Virginia has seen a decline in Medicaid enrollment by about 250,000 due to the post-pandemic unwinding. Despite those reductions, recently we have added about 20,000 people to the rolls each month. In fact, our rolls are now only about 90,000 lower than a year ago. This translates to a mandatory expense in excess of $200 million that is not incorporated into the Governor’s budget proposal.

What that all means is that the House and Senate have a lot of work ahead to produce a balanced budget. We will not only have to grapple with the Governor’s proposals, and the billions of dollars of budget amendments requests from legislators, but the realities of figuring out how we are going to meet our long-standing obligations.

This year I was appointed as chair of the SFAC Subcommittee on Health and Human Resources, a position I have been interested in for a long time. The mental health initiatives I have worked so hard on for many years fall within the purview of this subcommittee, so this puts me in the driver’s seat. The reality, however, is that mandatory spending demands will require many of my favored projects to take a back seat for now. That is a bitter pill to swallow.

In other news, bill limits have helped on the Senate side with our workload. While many bills are still awaiting action, the work seems manageable. The House still has a large number of bills to get through before crossover, and the Senate may be in for a significant amount of work after crossover if a large percentage of those house bills pass. I’ll touch on a few of the hot button bills this session.

  • Senator Dave Marsden of Fairfax County has introduced legislation that would initiate a referendum in Fairfax County with the aim of putting a casino in Tysons Corner. Such a venture could generate several hundred million dollars in state and local tax revenue. The problem is that the idea hasn’t been vetted by the local government or the community. I voted to carry the bill over to allow for more community input and to gather more information about the potential financial implications.
  • Senator Aaron Rouse patroned a bill to establish a legal cannabis market. His bill incorporates legislation from Sen. Adam Ebbin. We have worked to establish a market with rules that are comparable to the alcohol market. I supported the bill, which advanced from the Courts of Justice Committee to the SFAC, where it now awaits a hearing.
  • Another bill from Sen. Rouse aims to legalize skill games in Virginia. I have voted yes thus far since these games seem to be an extension of all the other forms of gambling we have already approved in Virginia. A parallel bill is advancing in the House of Delegates, and there the questions surrounding the bill are more fundamental than the ones being considered in the Senate. The debate on this issue is up in the air.
  • Another controversial bill before the Senate proposes an entertainment district and sports arena in the Potomac Yard section in Alexandria. This is the Governor’s keystone proposal, which he has had introduced by Senator Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Delegate Luke Torian of Prince William County, both of whom are Democrats. Senator Surovell serves as the Majority Leader in the Senate, and Del. Torian chairs the House Appropriations Committee. The Democrats control both chambers, and I gather the Governor thought that might be the best approach to getting the bills to advance. Many Democrats think it is a way for us to leverage the Governor to get some of our priorities signed into law. I am not confident that strategy will work. Having a major league sports team in Virginia would bring some excitement, prestige, and economic development, but it has to be done the right way.

In full disclosure, Ted Leonsis, who owns both the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals, contributed to my gubernatorial campaign many years ago. One of his top advisors was at that time one of my top advisors. With that said, the legislation proposes to create an authority that will issue bonds to construct the arena, which will seat 20,000 people, and a concert venue. There are lots of economic projections that suggest this will be very good for Alexandria. In fact, many local government officials have endorsed the idea.

However, unlike other proposals that have been made over the years, this one calls for the bonds to be secured by the full faith and credit of the Commonwealth of Virginia. That, in itself, could jeopardize our AAA bond rating. The bonds would be serviced by tax revenue generated by the facilities and lease payments. If there is a hiccup down the road – such as a pandemic or other unforeseen event – we could have problems. The other large unknown is how our transportation system can accommodate this type of development. A report was expected soon to provide some details, but I have not seen that yet. As everyone in Virginia knows, all of Northern Virginia is a traffic nightmare. While I remain open-minded, I am skeptical and waiting to hear some better answers with respect to those issues.

It continues to be a high honor for me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Please contact me at (804) 698-7511 or if I can be of service to you or if you are interested in visiting your state Capitol.