April 15 was more than Tax Day this year. Indeed, the legislature came back into session on Tax Day to consider the Governor’s amendments and vetoes to legislation passed during the 2015 General Assembly Session. Typically Senators and Delegates return to Richmond to consider handfuls of amendments and a few vetoes. This year was atypical for a number of reasons. [Read more…]
The 2015 Session of the General Assembly is history. While we passed over 1500 bills and resolutions, the Session will be remembered for a handful of things including reforming the transportation funding formula, adopting a new ethics bill that changes very little, and adjourning a day early. The Session will also be remembered for what it did not do. We failed, once again, to expand Medicaid and provide health insurance that we are already paying for through federal taxes to as many as 400,000 Virginians. [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 2014 session rolls on, and we are nearing crossover. Crossover is the time when the Senate must complete work on bills introduced in the Senate, and the House must complete work on bills introduced in the House. It’s called the crossover because after it occurs, the bills cross over to the other house for consideration.
Virginia Budget Issues
As usual, the budget is the major piece of work to be completed in this session of the General Assembly. In past years, transportation has been the topic at the top of the agenda. With the passage of the comprehensive transportation package last year, there are more arguments over spending priorities and how to balance the budget. With that said, the transportation plan last year has not raised nearly as much money as anticipated because last year’s numbers were built on the presumption that the price of gas would continue to rise. The good news for consumers is that the price of gas, though high, has remained fairly stable.
Expansion of Medicaid
Not surprisingly, the big issue this year with respect to the budget is the expansion of Medicaid. As outlined in this space a few weeks ago, I think expansion would be a good deal for Virginia. It would provide health care, including mental health service, to between 200,000 and 400,000 currently uninsured Virginians; and it would create a significant number of new jobs in Virginia. The federal government has committed to funding 100 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years and at least 90 percent in subsequent years. To me, it’s a no brainer: it is the right thing to do, and it makes good economic sense. A proposal to create a Virginia Marketplace to provide coverage for these individuals has been advanced in the Senate. The General Assembly is far from reaching a consensus on this issue, which risks tying up the budgetary process for a considerable period of time.
Contentious Legislative Proposals
A number of controversial topics have been debated this session that generated a lot of phone calls and emails. Among the most contentious measures are:
This year a bill was fashioned by Senator Phillip Puckett and others to allow Sunday hunting on private property by the owner of the property or those to whom he gave permission. I have long resisted voting for Sunday hunting because I think there are things to do outside on a Sunday other than hunt. In Bath County, where I live, hunting remains a popular activity. In the fall, Sunday is the only day that you can participate in other outdoor recreation, like trail riding or hiking, without coming across hunters in the woods.
Boating on Non-Navigable Streams
Senator Dave Marsden introduced a bill this year granting anyone the right to float on a stream with a drainage area of at least seven square miles. The bill was framed somewhat innocuously but would have allowed, from my perspective, floating on just about every stream in Virginia. Because I was concerned that this approach would have negatively affected some people’s property rights and would have provoked confrontation, I voted no.
Currently there is a bill pending from Senator Bill Carrico that would mandate execution by electrocution, a method that is optional under current law, if the chemicals for lethal injection are not available. Starting in 1994 Virginia joined the trend of performing executions by lethal injection. Today, some of the drugs that have been used to make the cocktail for the lethal injection are in short supply. I understand why Senator Carrico introduced the bill. However, there are only four states that currently allow the use of the electric chair. I am inclined not to support this legislation. I think we need to make sure that our statutes are constitutional, and I am concerned that this bill will actually weaken our death penalty statute.
The high profile case involving former Governor Bob McDonnell generated a great deal of interest and legislation pertaining to our ethics laws. The bill moving through the Senate would create the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, expand reporting requirements to include gifts to children, require semi-annual reporting of lobbyists and elected officials, and cap tangible gifts to legislators at $250, among other provisions. The bill is pending on the Senate floor as we debate amendments. While the bill does not go as far as some would like, the provisions are an improvement over current law.
Mental Health Policy Reform
A large portion of my work continues to be in the area of attempting to reform our mental health laws. Two of my proposals, Senate Bills 260 and 263, and legislation sponsored by others have been merged into one bill. The omnibus bill will require subjects be held up to 24 hours under an emergency custody order, create a database of available psychiatric beds, and ensure people in need of hospitalization cannot be “streeted” by establishing state hospitals as providers of last resort. That bill is currently on the floor of the Senate, and I expect to move it to the House by next week. The resolution creating a joint subcommittee to study mental health services passed the Senate and is pending in the House Committee on Rules.
The response to my legislative work on mental health has been overwhelming. People from throughout Virginia and the United States have shared their stories and reached out to me for help. Getting in touch with your elected officials and voicing your concerns is critical to effecting change. The Governor’s Task Force of Mental Health Services and Crisis Response will continue to meet throughout the year. You can submit public comment here.
It continues to be my distinct honor to serve you in the General Assembly. This will continue to be a busy session for me, and I look forward to your input throughout the process. Concerns, questions, or requests should be directed to my office at: PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.
We are at a crisis in transportation. In years past Virginia’s highways were lauded as some of the best in the land. In fact, our system has traditionally been recognized as one of the best in the country. But not anymore. Something in excess of 44 percent of our bridges and tunnels are structurally deficient. Those faulty bridges and tunnels can be found throughout the Commonwealth, not just in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The same can be said for deteriorating roads, traffic congestion, and underfunded public transit options.
We need a sustainable source of new funding for transportation. Experts tell us we need in excess of one billion dollars a year. The General Assembly has delayed action for years, and if we continue to do so, we run the risk of losing federal transportation funds. Those dollars must be matched, which we will not be able to do by 2017. Clearly, we have to do something.
This year, right before the session, the Governor put forth a plan. I have not been terribly critical of the plan for a couple of reasons. First, I lost to the governor in 2005 and 2009. Any criticism I make of his plan is likely to be seen as sour grapes or at least taken with a grain of salt. Second, I think the Governor’s prioritization of transportation is a huge step forward. While his plan is imperfect in my view, at least it is a plan and a starting point for working toward compromise and developing ideas that would force a solution. Now, in the closing days of the session, we are closer than ever to achieving a lasting transportation solution. In fact, we are poised to pass a plan out of the Senate. We do not need to have this discussion again in a year or two, or even five or ten. The final compromise should sustain our system for at least a generation.
Two major components of the Governor’s plan are flawed in this respect. The Governor’s proposal eliminates the 17.5 cent gas tax and replaces it with a 0.8 percent increase in the sales tax. He also has recommended taking around $200 million a year out of the general fund to pay for transportation.
The highway system was created under Harry Byrd’s leadership and funded initially with a three cent gas tax. It was the first step in the 20th century toward modernizing Virginia’s economy and creating opportunity in every corner of our Commonwealth. The gas tax was last raised in 1986. The 17.5 cents a gallon tax generates about $700 million a year.
The sales tax was created under Mills Godwin’s first term as governor to fund the new community college system. Over the years, the revenue has been used primarily for other general fund purposes: to fund higher education, K-12 education, health care, and public safety. The transportation package adopted in 1986 also increased the sales tax by 0.5 percent to fund our roads.
In the last four years, the Commonwealth of Virginia has cut funding for public education by over $1 billion. At the same time we have reduced direct aid to localities for K-12, we have required more of local governments and school boards. For example, just last year we increased the local responsibility for paying for teachers’ retirements which resulted in school systems in every corner of the Commonwealth having to look at cutting costs. Alleghany County considered closing two elementary schools. Through the leadership of the Board of Supervisors, the County came up with the funding to keep those schools open for a year. This year, Alleghany County is looking at closing three elementary schools. Alleghany is not alone. Rockbridge County has shut down schools. Albemarle County is considering closing schools. The same can be said for dozens of counties around the state.
All localities are facing significant fiscal pressure due to reduced funding from the state coupled with increased responsibilities. In that atmosphere, it just makes no sense to me to take upwards of $200 million a year from the general fund, money that could be flowing back to local schools, and spend it on roads. The bottom line is that when Virginia is shortchanging its general fund obligations, we have no business opening the general fund spigot to an area of endless need. By the same token, it makes no sense to me to raise a tax that has historically been used for general fund purposes for transportation. If the sales tax is to be raised, some or all of that money needs to go to education to take pressure off of the real estate tax at the local level.
In addition, it makes no sense to abolish the gas tax, a significant portion of which is paid by nonresidents who use our roads, and replace it with a sales tax, which is largely paid by Virginians. A more commonsense approach would be to replace the existing gas tax with a sales tax on gasoline, which will at least provide for some growth in revenues from year to year to help keep up with growing expenses relating to road maintenance and construction. If we are going to raise the sales tax, we should divide the money between higher education, K-12 education, and transportation, as proposed by Senator Dick Saslaw of Fairfax.
If we are going to use any portion of the general fund for transportation, the funds should be used for transit and rail. These modes of transportation are intended to move large numbers of people both short and long distances. Many public transit users lack access to private automobiles and reside in congested areas, where a reduction in private automobile use will lead directly to a reduction in costs related to highway maintenance and construction. Advocates for transit and rail have been demanding a fixed source of revenue for years. I propose that we agree to use general fund dollars.
Finally, the Governor’s plan does not produce enough revenue to do more than fund maintenance of highways. Those who wish for new construction projects will be disappointed in the plan. If we adopt the transportation proposal as written, not only would we be making bad policy decisions, we would inevitably be revisiting the subject of transportation funding within the next five years. We should not act simply to act. We must develop a meaningful compromise that will provide sustainable revenues for decades to come.
The Senate will consider a plan this week. Likely, an imperfect bill will pass. Then the real work will begin. Negotiations with the House and the Governor will determine the final product. Stay tuned.
It continues to be a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can answer any questions or be of service in these last two weeks, please contact me. I can be reached at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525.