One of the strengths of Virginia’s legislative process is that legislators are part-time. One hundred forty men and women from all over Virginia and from all walks of life come to Richmond to serve in the legislature during this time of year. The sessions are 60 days in length during even-numbered years and 46 days in odd-numbered years. The rest of the year we spend our time in our communities, working and volunteering, and meeting with constituents. But there is a move, albeit subtle, to change all that.
Constitutional amendments (SJ 295 and HJ 545) are moving through both houses that will allow the General Assembly to overturn any regulation that an administrative agency imposes. The legislature, of course, can already do this in practice. We can overturn regulations that are unreasonable or direct agencies to change regulations by passing laws. By imposing the legislature in the regulatory process even more, I fear this proposal will pressure the General Assembly to spend even more time in session and move us more toward a full-time legislature like California, New York, Pennsylvania, or Ohio. I do not think that is a good idea. The part-time nature keeps legislators closer to the people we represent. The process just works better when the people who make law have to make a living under the laws they create. I would hate to see us lose that.
Far and away the biggest accomplishment of the week was to get a budget passed. The House and the Senate money committees released their budgets last Sunday. Those versions were passed on Thursday in each respective chamber.
Both budgets reflect the fact that we are facing a shortfall, so cuts had to be made. I’ve outlined some of those cuts in the past. Both budgets reflect a shared priority of increasing salaries; although the House and Senate took different approaches. Both provide raises to law-enforcement, particularly the State Police. The House budget also increases the appropriation for the Capitol Police. With respect to teachers, the Senate included a two percent pay increase. The House increases the appropriation for school divisions, which may use the money for raises or for other priorities. The Senate provides funding for a two percent raise for faculty at our institutions of higher learning, and the House provides for a three percent increase.
With respect to mental health funding, the Governor’s recommendations were kept largely intact. Both versions of the budget retain funding for same-day access but strip out the money that was intended to provide assessments of jail inmates and provide additional investigators to review jail deaths. Both recognized the need to invest in supportive housing. The Senate included an additional $5 million and the House $2 million. The differences will be ironed out in the last two weeks of the session.
While the budget conferees will be focused on hammering out a final budget proposal, most of us will spend the next 10 days or so chasing bills in the other house while still trying to attend our own committee meetings. The difficulty in being multiple places at the same time is even more complicated after crossover. On Wednesday afternoon of this week, I had my two regular standing committee meetings but had to present bills in two different House subcommittees at the same time. Final deadlines are quickly approaching. Monday, February 20 is the last day for committees to meet and most of our work will be completed by the 23rd. If the House and Senate disagree about the specific wording of a bill, the legislation is put into conference. So after that date, conference committees work to resolve those differences up until our scheduled adjournment on February 25.
In addition to the usual legislative work, memorial resolutions are passed every year in celebration of the lives of prominent Virginians. This past year we said goodbye to a number of former legislators, including Warren Barry, Jackie Stump, Alan Mayer, Johnny Joannou, and Chuck Colgan. We also lost Senator John Miller last year.
Warren Barry served in the House of Delegates, the Senate, and as clerk of court in Fairfax County. Jackie Stump was a union organizer from Buchanan County who came to the House in the midst of the Pittston coal strike. Alan Mayer was a retired military man who made his mark in multiple areas in the House. Johnny Joannou of Portsmouth was a colorful guy who walked his own path in both the Senate and the House. John Miller unexpectedly passed while still in office. He was a good man devoted to public education.
Chuck Colgan was one-of-a-kind. He was one of the last World War II veterans who served in a legislature anywhere in the country. He was part of a generation of men and women who gave up their youth to save the world. They came home, started families, invested in communities and generally gave back all of their lives. Chuck Colgan’s generation built the America we all love. We have all benefited from the greatest generation’s contributions and we will not see their kind again. We owe Chuck Colgan and all of the members of that generation a debt of gratitude.
Although the work is winding down, I continue to receive input on pending legislation. I appreciate the calls, emails, and letters and hope you will continue to stay in touch during these final weeks. Please know that your voices are being heard. The best way to contact me is by email at [email protected] or by phone at (804) 698-7525.