The 2017 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly is underway. This short session is scheduled to adjourn on the last Saturday in February. During those 46 days, the legislature will consider more than 2,500 bills that come from delegates and senators from around Virginia, together with amendments to the two-year budget.
The session held in odd-numbered years was added to the Constitution about 35 years ago. The newly created short session was intended solely to consider amendments to the budget or emergency legislation. Now we cram just about the same amount of work taken up in long sessions into two fewer weeks. One important difference to note is that the House of Delegates limits members to only 15 bills in short sessions. The Senate does not have that limitation. Regardless, the primary work of every session is the budget.
This year the budget is complicated by a shortfall. The budget is built on revenue projections, so we must make adjustments during the year based on actual revenues coming in compared to the anticipated revenues. Typically the projections are fairly conservative, but because Virginia has been one of the leaders in the nation in economic growth, projections have been good. This year our revenues have struggled. The Governor had to develop a plan to balance the budget so that we may avoid a disruption in services.
Initially, the Governor’s office projected the shortfall to be around $1.5 billion, or about 3 percent of the budget. However since that initial projection last fall, we have seen some positive growth in our revenues. The shortfall is now projected to be about $1 billion, which is still a significant amount of money, but the improved numbers give us more room to work and negotiate.
One of the first casualties of the budget shortfall was the proposed salary increase for state employees that we included in the budget last year. The raise was contingent upon our revenues meeting projections. A full 2 percent increase costs roughly $300 million and will be difficult to accomplish this year. However, there is increasing pressure to try to come up with an increase in pay. Members of the Senate Finance Committee have expressed reservations about the Governor’s proposals for some of his behavioral health initiatives and would like to redirect the money to pay increases for state police. Both of these are laudable efforts and need adequate funding.
This year, much of the work that I have been doing with the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century will come to a head. We endorsed significant proposals to begin reshaping the community service boards. The Subcommittee put forward legislation to redefine the list of mandated services that are required of the CSBs. Because the changes are significant and costly, we have adopted a staged approach to implementation. The first step is to require same day access to service. The Governor shares the Subcommittee’s vision moving forward and included money in his introduced budget to begin the phasing in of this mandate. I am committed over the long haul to developing a community service-based system that works in every part of Virginia.
Another recommendation will mandate screening requirements within our jails, which hopefully will lead to improved access to services while incarcerated. This particular initiative has been adopted by the Governor but is also under attack in the General Assembly due to the competing funding concerns I mentioned earlier, so we have to work together to try to come up with a compromise.
The short session will go by fast. I try to make decisions based on the best information I have. Sometimes I don’t have the best information, but you might. So I need to hear from you. If you have an idea or if you think something should be done about an issue, or if you need help with a state agency, please contact my office at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected]. We will be working in Richmond through Saturday, February 25.
It continues to be my high honor to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. I look forward to hearing from you.