The 2016 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly is off and running. The long sessions are held in even years and are significant because we will be adopting a new two-year budget. Due to our budget cycle, this is the first year Governor McAuliffe has an opportunity to put forward his vision for the Commonwealth. This biennial budget will be the Governor’s opportunity to leave a legacy.
On the first night of the session, the Senate and House of Delegates convened a Joint Assembly to welcome the Governor and hear his State of the Commonwealth speech. Typically such affairs are light, and the mood is hopeful and congenial. Certainly this year was not much of an exception.
Budget Priorities: Education and Economic Development
Governor McAuliffe laid out his outline for the $109 billion two-year spending plan. His budget priorities include education and economic development, which generally receive widespread support. The Governor boosts spending for both K-12 and higher education. Those in K-12 know that spending has been very tight for at least the past seven years. The Governor’s re-benchmarking of that area of the budget was needed just to catch up.
In higher education, Virginia’s historically frugal way has left us behind many surrounding states in terms of our overall investment in higher education. This year’s plan achieves a number of important goals. First, it adds planning money and capital outlay for a number of important projects throughout the system. Of particular interest to those who reside in the 25th Senate District, money is allocated for the development of a student center at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Second, and important for our economy, there is additional investment in workforce training at our community colleges in clear recognition that a bachelor’s or associate’s degree is not necessary for every segment of the workforce. Sometimes a certification can increase earning power and productivity.
In an effort to build a budget to include something for everyone, the Governor also proposes corporate tax cuts to promote business growth in Virginia and remain competitive with other states. He also provides funding for GO Virginia, which is supported by business and local governments, to encourage regional partnerships and planning for economic development. This funding will allow jurisdictions to work together on common goals, rather than compete for business.
While his efforts in these areas may receive widespread support, the Governor has not avoided controversy in the budget. For the third time, the Governor put forward budget language to expand Medicaid in Virginia. The proposal and related money is woven into the budget. I have consistently argued that expanding Medicaid makes good economic and political sense for Virginia. Ninety percent of the dollars to expand Medicaid will come from the federal government. Of course, those dollars don’t just “come from the federal government”; the funding is generated by money higher earning Virginians already pay due to increased taxes in the Affordable Care Act. If we have an opportunity to bring our tax dollars back to Virginia to work for us, we have a responsibility to act. In doing so, we can provide insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of Virginians, a significant number of whom suffer serious mental illness, who are falling through the cracks. Providing health care to these individuals is the right thing to do.
Predictably, there is a good deal of partisanship being displayed, particularly about the Medicaid issue. But I am hopeful we can put aside some of our past differences and genuinely work together for the benefit of the people of the Commonwealth.
In addition, there are a number of judicial issues before the Virginia General Assembly. Specifically, I will introduce legislation that calls for an additional fourth general district court judgeship in the 25th Circuit, the area that stretches north from Craig and Botetourt Counties to Highland and Augusta Counties. I will also carry a budget amendment to fund an additional circuit court position in the 16th Circuit, in the Charlottesville-Albemarle region.
The Virginia General Assembly must also confirm or elect a new justice to the Supreme Court. A great deal of partisanship continues to surround this issue, even though the Governor’s appointment was nominated by the Republican Chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Many Republican leaders oppose Justice Jane Roush’s election. How that plays out remains to be seen.
Procedural Measures in the Virginia General Assembly
On the first day, the Senate voted on a number of procedural measures necessary for conducting the work of the people. We narrowly adopted new rules, including the controversial removal of media access to the chamber during session, and finalized committee assignments. I resumed my seat on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, on which I last served in 2011. Longtime friends know that I spent many years on the Courts Committee while in the House of Delegates. In order to obtain that assignment, I gave up positions on the General Laws and Technology Committee and the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee. I maintained my seats on the Transportation and Privileges and Elections Committees.
Although the Virginia General Assembly Session just began on Wednesday, lots of bills have been introduced and standing committees have begun working through the over 2,000 bills already before us. I urge you to please let me hear from you if you have any information or ideas about the legislation currently before us.
It remains a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may be of assistance, or if you wish to share your thoughts with me, please contact me at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525. I look forward to hearing from you.