The first full week of the 2024 Regular Session of the General Assembly is now in the books. Like most years, the week has just flown by. Committee meetings start early, usually around 7:30 am, and go all morning until the Senate and House convene the daily floor sessions and start right back up when they adjourn. Between committees, the offices are full of people, including constituents visiting to see how the government works or voice their views on a bill, lobbyists, agency representatives, other administration officials, and members of the media. There is hardly a dull moment.

There are a number of big issues before this year’s General Assembly. First, a compromise must be reached on a balanced budget. Second, two State Corporation Commission (SCC) vacancies must be filled. Third, while the topic du jour changes on a regular basis, issues involving gambling seem to take a lot of the oxygen in the session. And, as it happens, I am in the middle of all three of these issues.

First, the budget. I have devoted a lot of time in this space to discuss the budget. After several years of federal COVID relief money bolstering the budget, we haven’t really addressed the very real challenges that exist for us to get the budget finished.

Revenues are going to be a real issue during this biennium. As you know, the Governor has made a couple of sales tax proposals. One of those is to raise the base for state sales tax by .9 of a cent. The second is to apply the sales tax to certain digital services. The net effect of these changes will raise about $900 million over the biennium. The Governor has also proposed a 12% across the board decrease in the income tax, which would take about $2 billion out of available funding streams. The net effect of these changes is a loss of about $1 billion.

Each member of the General Assembly has proposed budget amendments to meet the needs of their constituents. Rarely do those changes involve reducing spending, increasing revenues, or moving spending from one priority to another. Rather the proposals simply involve new spending requests. The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee and the House Appropriations Committee then have to decide if the priorities of the members have weight, and if so, where to get the money. None of this is easy. I chair the Health and Human Services Subcommittee of Senate Finance and Appropriations. The HHR Subcommittee oversees about 30% of the state budget and the decisions involving these priorities are often the toughest. Often it reminds me of a multiple-choice test, but all of the answers are correct. We have to decide which of several worthy topics is important enough to be included in the budget. Raising reimbursement rates to improve access to health care for Medicaid recipients, funding crisis services across the Commonwealth, reducing the waiting list for individuals with developmental disabilities, and addressing maternal health disparities are all critical issues, but we cannot fund everything. Decisions like that are rarely easy.

This year, before we even get to decisions about where the money is spent, we have to decide whether the Governor’s tax proposals are meritorious. Are all of them worth adopting? Are some of them adopting? Over the next thirty days, we will be dealing with those very questions. The easy option, because I don’t think we need to cut taxes further, is to walk away from his proposals. However, that is easier said than done because his budget document is built around those cuts.

The next issue of huge importance are the SCC slots. The SCC implements much of the business regulatory scheme that exists in Virginia. Whether it is utility regulation, rules regarding financial institutions and insurance companies, or basic corporate law, the SCC plays a huge role. It’s an agency of 700 employees. For two years, two of the three seats on the SCC have been vacant. Partisan wrangling prevented them from being filled when the House and Senate were divided. Now Democrats control both sides, and we have had good discussions regarding the vacancies. As Chair of the Commerce and Labor Committee, I have played a central role in working to get those slots filled as soon as possible.

Before Christmas, I began working with Delegate Jeion Ward, Chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, to develop a strategy with filling these slots. We had applicants present their credentials to the Division of Legislative Services during a period that closed earlier this month. We had over 20 applicants, and I can tell you that each applicant had something important to offer. We have narrowed the list down and hopefully over the next couple of days, we will select the two finalists. Then, because the seats have terms of different lengths, we will have to decide who gets which slot. My hope is that we have the SCC judges selected by this coming Wednesday, January 24.

The third issue that has been prevalent in the early part of this session is gambling. That has presented itself in a couple of ways. First, electronic skill games – also known as gray games because they operate under a gray area of the law – are present in many small businesses around the state. Last year the Supreme Court ruled that use in Virginia violated the law. Legislation was introduced this year, by Senator Aaron Rouse, to allow skill games. My own view is that while I am not a gambler, I am not paternalistic either: I think that skill games, which are primarily a form of entertainment for working class Virginians, have a place. I favor leveling the playing field, since we already have casinos, the lottery, charitable gaming, horse track racing, and historic horse racing. I have been open to the idea that as long as we have a regulated and taxed schematic of skill games, we should allow them in Virginia. Senator Rouse’s bill came before the Commerce and Labor Committee this past week. There was a significant amount of discussion, but eventually the bill was reported and re-referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee due to its significant fiscal implications.

The second policy matter that is before the General Assembly relates to casinos. Virginia law allows for five casinos. The City of Petersburg has wanted a casino but has been in competition with the one that was planned for the City of Richmond. The General Assembly allowed for a second referendum in Richmond, which occurred last fall. Richmond voters, for the second time, said no. My guess is a casino referendum will be allowed in Petersburg, so the residents can decide if they want one in their community. Senators Lashrecse Aird and Louise Lucas have introduced a bill to accomplish this.

Senator David Marsden has a bill to allow a referendum on a casino in Fairfax County and provide for possibly a sixth casino. The bill would also require a referendum to be held in Fairfax County and support of a majority of voters. We will see what that legislation looks like.

Of course, thousands of bills have been introduced on a wide variety of hot topics – including abortion access, gun violence prevention, and criminal justice reform. On the last day to introduce legislation, bills were dropped by Democratic members of the General Assembly for the creation of an arena in the City of Alexandria for the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals. The bill would allow for the creation of an entertainment district and a 20,000-seat arena. It could be very good for Virginia, or it could be very bad. The devil is always in the details, and we will have to see how that one works out.

It continues to be a high honor for me to serve you in the Virginia Senate. If you would like to come to Richmond and see your government in action, want to share your views on legislation, or need help with a state agency, please contact us at (804) 698-7511 or email senatordeeds@senate.virginia.gov.

Best,

 

Creigh