The 2017 Session of the General Assembly is flying by. We are two and a half weeks into the session, and we only have about four weeks left. The committees are meeting around the clock to try to dispose of bills, and often legislators must be in three places at the same time.
I serve on the Transportation and Courts of Justice Committees. Courts meets on Monday mornings and on Wednesday afternoons. While Monday mornings tend to be a busy day for visitors, I am usually tied up in Courts from 8:00 am until 11:30 am, at which point I have to head to the Capitol. Unfortunately, Transportation also meets on Wednesday afternoons. Both committees have heavy dockets, and it is difficult to monitor the bills in both committees and present my own bills. I typically leave a proxy for my vote with another senator I trust in both committees. Fortunately, the committee rooms are close enough together to permit me to bounce back-and-forth and be present during the most contentious or significant bills.
As discussed in the space in recent weeks, one of the problems we have this year is dealing with the budget shortfall. The shortfall is currently estimated to be about $1.26 billion over the biennium, but that will change when revenues are readjusted in February. One serious implication of the shortfall is that it potentially stalls raises for state employees that were in the budget the General Assembly adopted during the 2016 Session. The raises were contingent on budget growth that did not occur. Of course, those raises were counted on by many state employees and teachers who have not seen a significant raise for several years.
This week the chairmen of the money committees of the House and Senate held a news conference and announced that the budget would include money for pay increases for state police and sheriff deputies. There is a significant compression issue in the salary of our law-enforcement communities, such that new hires make the same or more money than those who have been on the job for many years. These men and women keep our communities safe and face risk and dangers most of us will never experience in our lives. To address the whole salary issue, as planned in the last budget, we need to come up with about $340 million. One wonders what services will be trimmed to arrive at that amount. Certainly, in my view, we have to find a way, if possible, to raise salaries. However, we also have a lot of other responsibilities, including reforming our mental health system and supporting K-12 education. The Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees must complete their work on the budget by February 5.
As you know, my priority is on mental health. Many of the priorities under consideration were developed in the Joint Subcommittee I chair. There are three priorities this year. First, we want to redefine the work the CSBs have available for those in need of services. We are starting that process by requiring 25 of the 40 CSBs to have same-day service and certain outpatient services. But there is a longer list of services that we are trying to get in the code. It may take years to fund that list, but it is important to establish our future vision for the mental health system in Virginia.
The second priority is to do a better job of assessing those who enter our jails and may have mental health needs, including providing for their care and having the tools necessary to investigate when problems arise. Much of this debate stems from the tragic death of Jamycheal Mitchell while he was incarcerated at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the money that would pay for these reforms is being diverted to fund the pay raises. We still have a lot of work to do in this area.
The third priority is to address is long term supportive housing. We know that services after a crisis are critical to preventing a future crisis. Our system needs to be recalibrated to focus more on avoiding crisis instead of responding to crisis. People should be able to access services that will ensure long-term recovery and give them the opportunity to live productive lives. This starts with having a stable place to live.
While I have focused much time on mental health, I put forward many bills that are meeting a mixed reception. The bill I am carrying on behalf of Rockbridge County to designate the James River within its jurisdiction as a scenic river has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House of Delegates. Senate Bill 1197 was brought to me by Rockbridge residents who were concerned about a project in Botetourt County. The legislation, which would require more public input for small renewable energy projects, has not fared very well. A subcommittee voted this week to recommend killing the bill and final action will be taken on Monday in full committee.
Early this morning, I advanced in committee legislation requested by the Alleghany Board of Supervisors to allow for the sale of beer and wine at outdoor music venues. A second bill was requested by the Charlottesville City public schools to remove some unnecessary and burdensome regulations placed on their afterschool program. My bill was rolled into a broader bill and should move forward in the Senate.
Two other constituent generated bills were considered this week. A couple in Albemarle County wrote to me following difficulties they had in obtaining a refund for the sales and use tax they paid on a used vehicle. They only had the car in their possession for a couple of days, but it took weeks for technicians to determine the vehicle had a significant mechanical defect. They returned the car to the dealer, but DMV could not under the law refund the sales tax. Because laws do not apply retroactively, this couple will not get their money back, but they are helping to improve the law for others. A group of Charlottesville residents successfully approached the City Council to request enabling legislation to allow for the enforcement of speed limits by speed monitoring systems. The bill was considered this week in the Senate Transportation Committee and was referred to the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability for review. I look forward to the Commission’s recommendations.
You can review a full list of my bills here. In the coming week, I expect we will see action on redistricting bills, legislation pertaining to public utilities and energy policy, among a host of other hot topics.
It continues to be my high honor to represent you in the Senate of Virginia. Please contact my office at (804) 698-7525 or [email protected] if you have concerns about legislation pending before the General Assembly or need help with a state agency. I look forward to hearing from you and value your input.