With the legislature wrapping up the 2016 Regular Session of the General Assembly in a day or so, I wanted to provide a status report.
The budget deal has been reported in most of the major newspapers. It includes a three percent pay raise for state employees and faculty at our institutions of higher learning, as well as a two percent raise for teachers and other state-supported local employees. The budget deal also includes about $190 million to bulk up the Virginia Retirement System. You will recall that contributions were reduced during the recession. This action will allow us to restore those funds about six years ahead of time. The increases in teacher pay are a part of a $900 million increase in K-12 spending by the state.
Even though the budget is fatally flawed because it does not include Medicaid expansion or bring home the dollars that Virginians are paying to the federal government for the expansion, it does increase Medicaid eligibility for people with serious mental illness and adds about $3.5 million for juvenile mental health treatment. The budget also includes language to establish pilot programs in local and regional jails to help treat people with mental illness.
The budget includes about 355 additional Medicaid waiver slots for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Those slots are in addition to the 850 slots required by the Department of Justice. Regrettably, the waiting list is much longer, and we are making slow progress.
The budget provides for additional funding for the Massey Cancer Center in Richmond and for the Focused Ultrasound Center at the University of Virginia for research. The budget bulks up higher education to the tune of an additional $255 million.
Many people know of my keen interest in our state park system. The budget will provide a path forward on establishing Natural Bridge as a state park. Language in the Governor’s introduced budget was maintained to fund two positions at Natural Bridge and will commit to increasing advertising to drive up the number of visitors. The loan with the Virginia Resources Authority is current now, and I am hopeful that this treasure will be preserved for generations to come.
Unfortunately, it looks like we will not take a step forward on Biscuit Run. The Governor had included over $40 million in his bond package to develop this park in Albemarle County. The money was stripped out by both the House and Senate. We will still advocate for the gradual development of that property.
For a number of years, I have advocated for the creation of a state park in Highland County. I was heartened just last week when there seemed to be an opening to press that issue. At this late date, it appears that funding will not be included in the bond bill.
Last year, at the last minute of the General Assembly, a massive ethics bill was adopted. Because the leadership of the House of Delegates was eager to leave town a day early, and the Senate leadership caved to their demands, the bill passed with a number of significant and technical flaws. While some fixes were made during the reconvened session last year, both sides have advanced legislation this year to correct additional flaws. Those bills are in limbo here at the last minute, as conferees are trying to come up with final language for the bill. I am hopeful the compromise will make the law workable but not take a step back on disclosures, gifts, and transparency.
The Supreme Court debacle is resolved, but sadly Justice Roush, an eminent jurist from Fairfax County, lost her seat. Interim appointments can be made by the Governor but are subject to approval by the General Assembly. As I’ve said earlier, some of the leadership in the House and the Senate were upset because they did not feel the nomination was properly vetted. In recent days, Senate Republicans floated the name of former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. It seems his name was floated simply to stir people up and distract attention from other candidates. In the end, Ken Cuccinelli stated he was not interested and withdrew his name from consideration.
The Republican majorities in the House and Senate elected Justice Stephen R. McCullough of the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court. Those who read my last piece on judicial selection ought to take a look at Justice McCullough. He finished law school in 1997, clerked for a judge for two years and spent 12 years working in the attorney general’s office before his appointment to the Court of Appeals. To my knowledge, he has never represented an individual in court or had any private law practice. I am confident he has the intellectual ability to be a Supreme Court justice, but he does not have the practical experience one develops through years of practicing law. I am also confident that ideologically his views are consistent with those of Mr. Cuccinelli. Despite my concerns, I am hopeful he will serve the Commonwealth with distinction on the bench.
It continues to be my pleasure to serve in the Senate of Virginia. I will provide more updates as more information becomes available. Once Session is over, I will return to my work as a lawyer and the continuing work of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of service. I can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone in Hot Springs at 540-839-2473 or in Charlottesville at 434-296-5491.