After much thought, I want to announce that I will run for re-election to the State Senate this fall. I am proud of the many things we have been able to accomplish, working together, to protect the most vulnerable, Virginia’s children, to conserve Virginia’s open space, to rebuild Virginia’s economy, and recently to reform our system of mental health care. I will be humbled to ask the voters in the 25th Senatorial District for their votes on November 3rd so that I may continue my work. [Read more…]
The 2015 Session of the General Assembly is hurtling toward adjournment. The word around here is that we may complete our work earlier than the scheduled February 28 adjournment.
Election year jitters, and a clear partisan majority in both houses, makes it less likely we will find ourselves at a stalemate this year. Medicaid expansion, the issue that held the General Assembly up last year, has been shoved aside. Many Republicans acknowledge that the policy reasons for Virginia expanding Medicaid are compelling. Virginia’s economy could use the $2.5 billion bump that would be fully funded by the federal government through 2016 and that health insurance for 400,000 people who are currently uninsured would be a boost to Virginia’s economy and health. The problem is political. Virginia’s working poor took a backseat to election year politics.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the budget that appear to be close on most issues, thus the optimism about an early adjournment. The last two weeks of the General Assembly will be spent working out the differences in a conference committee. I will only touch on a few areas of the budget.
Pay increases for public employees
Because revenue projections have improved since last December, both the House and Senate included money in the budget for pay increases for public employees. The Senate bumps up the salaries of state and state-supported local employees by three percent, two percent for college faculty, and 1.5 percent for the state share for public school teachers. The Senate budget includes $5.8 million generated by Senator Carrico’s bill I discussed last week to address salary compression issues at the Virginia State Police.
K-12 education funding
The Senate and the House proposals incorporated the Governor’s priorities with respect to K-12 education. The budgets adopted by the House and Senate yesterday do not cut funding to our public schools. The increased revenue, which has allowed some flexibility with this year’s budget, should not be viewed too optimistically. The economy is changing in dramatic ways, and we must diversify. As a result, many of the increases enjoyed in this revenue spurt are being spent on one-time expenses rather than being built into the base budget. The Senate in particular agreed with the Governor’s recommendation of $50 million for school construction and to subsidize interest rates for school divisions with an additional $25 million.
The Governor also proposed using $537,000 for new school breakfast program designed to encourage all school divisions to serve breakfast. The Senate budget targets this program only at elementary schools where free and reduced lunch eligibility exceeds 45 percent.
Mental health services
Last year I feared the legislature would lose focus on the importance of revamping mental health services in Virginia. We took some steps last year but much work remains. The budget proposals adopted this week allay my fears. Both the House and Senate infused significant funding into an array of services. The Senate provided new money for permanent supportive housing, two new PACT teams, and for child psychiatry and crisis response. The House included some of those priorities but also provided funding for four new therapeutic drop-off centers. While the differences need to be worked out, I am heartened to see the continued commitment of my colleagues to improve services in Virginia.
An area of interest to many of my constituents is transportation funding. For the first time in many years, the administration actually has some transportation money to spend. The transportation funding formula, which historically has benefited rural areas, has not been working since 2009. The money which fueled those formulas has slowed to trickle. With the passage of House Bill 2313 in 2013, additional dollars are flowing to transportation. While the slowdown in the economy diminished those anticipated funds, there are at last dollars flowing to much needed transportation projects.
A couple of bills, HB 1886 and HB 1887, have been introduced Delegate Chris Jones with the support of the McAuliffe administration. The legislation does not change many of the basic principles of the formula, but divides the money up into different pots. The end result is that each district should be getting roughly the same or more money than in prior years, but the money will be targeted in different ways.
Under these proposals, forty percent of the money will go into what will be known as “state and good repair” purposes, which includes major bridge and overpass reconstruction and other significant maintenance projects. That money will flow into each of the transportation districts.
Thirty percent will go to a statewide fund for “high priority” projects, which are defined as “projects of regional or statewide significance” that address such things as congestion, safety, economic development or environmental quality. Projects that might fit into this project include the Route 220 project in Botetourt and Alleghany Counties. The road project not only cuts across county lines but cuts across transportation districts and is clearly a project with regional and even statewide significance.
The remaining thirty percent of funds go to “highway construction districts” grant programs. These are projects that are high priorities within each district.
We are still working through all of the details of the bills, and I am honored to serve on the subcommittee responsible for reviewing the legislation. I am hopeful that the end result will provide real opportunities to move forward on critical transportation projects throughout Virginia.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Please let me know if you if I can be of service to you in any way. You can reach my office during the legislative session at PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.
The 2015 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is underway. This is a short session, scheduled to adjourn on February 28, 2015, so the work will be fast and furious. We will deal with some hefty matters this session, but as usual, budgetary issues will control much attention. Virginia’s economy is changing in fundamental ways, which affects Virginia’s revenue stream. If we fail at this time to meet the changing economy, diversify and do the best we can to insure that Virginians for generations will have the opportunity to succeed, our legacy, regardless of the issues we address this session, will fall short.
The Governor is rightfully focused on the economy and job creation, as reflected in his State of the Commonwealth address. While Virginia faces many challenges, there are certainly successes that have occurred in his first year in office. In the past year, he has closed over 200 economic opportunities bringing thousands of jobs to Virginia and $5.58 billion in capital investments to the Commonwealth. That is more than twice as much as any past administration during the Governor’s first year in office. That is certainly good news.
However, the reality is that in the face of sequestration at the federal level, the loss of defense contracts in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, we have no choice but to remain dedicated to bringing new investment to the Commonwealth. An important tool the Governor has used to bring jobs to Virginia is the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. I am proud to have written that Fund into the Code of Virginia in 1996. We have to strengthen the Fund and make certain it is available for opportunities throughout Virginia. The Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund is another key tool that supports a critical part of Virginia’s economy. The Governor announced in his speech that agricultural exports are at an all-time high.
Despite the fiscal climate, the Governor made a point of not cutting K-12 spending or making further cuts in higher education this year. I have always likened cuts to education to eating your seed corn. The cuts simply do not make sense if one wants to have a promising future. We must continue to invest in education so that the next generation of Virginians has the tools they need to succeed in the workforce or at the next level of education. Likewise, we need to make sure that the Standards of Learning are realistic and a tool to help our children and schools succeed. We began a reform movement last year and will take that another step this year.
Although we are in a new year, the issue of Medicaid expansion continues to play a role in our economy. By refusing to expand Medicaid or adopt the alternative approach offered last year, Marketplace Virginia, we gave up about $2.1 billion in federal funding for 2014. Under the Affordable Care Act, 100 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion will be borne by the federal government in 2015 and 2016 should we expand. Up to 400,000 Virginians who currently are without insurance and ineligible for existing Medicaid – primarily the working poor – could benefit. Unlike a lot of federal programs, Medicaid expansion is already paid for through new taxes or fees embedded in the ACA, including a tax increase on those who earn more than $200,000 annually.
Virginia has offered a number of reforms, which have ensured accountability and individual responsibility, lessening the likelihood of fraud and requiring co-payments. We have even written into the law that if the federal share of Medicaid expansion drops below 90 percent after 2016, Virginia will drop out. Nevertheless, the Virginia General Assembly continues to refuse to expand Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid this year would reduce our budget deficit by over $100 million, provide much needed insurance to hundreds of thousands of people, and improve the long-term health of our workforce. As I have said before, it is just the right thing to do in my view.
In spite of the intransigency of the House of Delegates with respect to Medicaid expansion, the Governor has administratively found a way to provide a level of healthcare to about 20,000 people who struggle with severe mental illness. While this program is important, it’s a drop in the bucket. There are estimates that as many as 77,000 Virginians who struggle with serious mental illness would be eligible if the legislature expanded Medicaid. The inability to fully access services or treatment leaves this population vulnerable and puts them and the community at risk. It is simply irresponsible for us not to find a way to provide more coverage to people with significant health care needs.
Session will be busy for me. I will continue my work on mental health issues this year with a bill that originates from the University of Virginia Law School and deals with advanced directives for people who have a mental illness and with a couple of bills from the Governor’s Mental Health Task Force. My legislative package also includes initiatives to follow up on SB 261, which passed last year. The primary work on mental health reform will generate from the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century, created last year by Senate Joint Resolution 47. The Subcommittee is scheduled to report to the General Assembly in December 2015 and 2017. The process of reform will be deliberate because we want to get it right. And it is my hope that in spite of the measured nature of this work, we do not lose our sense of urgency, because people’s lives are literally at stake.
I am carrying a number of bills this session and will report on those in the coming weeks. It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the General Assembly. If we can of service or assistance during the legislative session, or if you would like to visit Richmond to see the legislature in action, please feel free to contact us at: PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected] , or (804) 698-7525.