The 2019 Session of the General Assembly is underway. This is a short session, set to adjourn on the 23rd of February. The Session began with a committee meeting and a speech from the Governor.
Usually it takes several days of preliminary work before the real action begins. This year, however, on the first day of session, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections met to consider certain constitutional amendments. Most constitutional amendments simply aim to put a matter on the ballot to let the people decide. Typically I have had no problem putting things on the ballot so the people could have their voices heard. The one notable exception to the rule this year was the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA legislation does not require a ballot initiative rather it only requires ratification by the Virginia General Assembly to make the ERA part of the U.S. Constitution.
Thirty-seven states have ratified the ERA. Once it is ratified by the 38th, the amendment will become part of the U. S. Constitution. There is some debate about whether this issue is timely. Congress initially required ratification of the amendment by 1979 but then extended the deadline to 1982. I am persuaded, however, by other arguments that Congress does not have the authority to limit the amount of time the states have to approve amendments. In recent years, an amendment passed to ensure pay raises for congressional representatives do not go into effect until they have gone through an election cycle. This amendment was proposed as part of the original Bill of Rights. This provides evidence that time limits for approval are artificial. In any respect, I voted yes. The ERA now goes to the floor of the Senate for consideration.
Governor Ralph Northam delivered his State of the Commonwealth address in his typical understated but sincere way. The Governor wants to create opportunity all over Virginia, not leaving any section of the state out, and presented a fair and balanced way to resolve our issues and deal with a budget surplus.
A strong economy, changes to the federal tax law, and internet sales tax will allow Virginia to enjoy a surplus this year of more than a billion dollars. You have to be careful about such a surplus because it is unlikely to occur on an ongoing basis. Therefore many of the investments you make with those additional revenues must be targeted, one-time expenditures. Building the new expenditures into the base budget would require new taxes the next time we have a shortfall. The Governor proposed using a chunk of those dollars to fully fund the earned income tax credit. The credit would be available to lower middle-class earners, people who work and pay taxes but may not have enjoyed reduced taxes under the federal tax plan adopted in December 2017. It is a logical approach to ensure all Virginians see some tax relief.
The Governor also committed to resolve the opioid crisis we have seen throughout communities in Virginia. Notably Sheriff Kevin Hall and his son, Ryan, were present to help Governor Northam illustrate the very real problem addiction represents to so many Virginia families.
The Governor has been working with a number of people to solve the problems we have on Interstate 81. I-81 is the economic lifeline of western Virginia. It is also the highway in Virginia that carries the most truck traffic. The roadway is congested and dangerous, and we have to take action. The Governor announced plans to use tolls to service bonds in order to make the necessary improvements. Tolls are beneficial in that the users of the road pay for the improvements. Part of the plan would allow people who use the road as commuters to pay an annual fee instead of a daily toll. Many of my friends in northern Virginia whose constituents pay somewhere between $9 and $40 one-way for tolls just to get to work wonder why their constituents do not have the same opportunity to pay a yearly fee.
Tolls may have the consequence of diverting traffic to other highways not built for a high volume of truck traffic. It also ignores problems on other highways throughout Virginia. As one example, we would still be without a funding source for issues relating to Route 220 in Botetourt and Alleghany Counties. For that reason, I think it makes sense to revisit the decisions we made in 2013 that balkanized our transportation system. In 2013 we told northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise their own money. Without a statewide base upon which to raise the revenues to fix our highways, the burden on central and western Virginia is extraordinary.
When I think of the Commonwealth, I think that word means we are all in this together. We are supposed to work toward common goals. By cutting Virginia up into a network of tax districts and toll roads, we ignore that principle. I hope we can have a healthy debate this time about what Commonwealth means, particularly when it comes to transportation. The Governor said his plan is a starting point for discussion, and I hope that we are open-minded enough to work toward long-term solutions.
The 2019 Session promises to be fast-paced. We are off to a running start and, if history is a guide, the Session will be over before we know it. Please do not hesitate to reach out and let me know what you think about these or any other issues. The office can be reached at (804) 698-7525 or by email at [email protected]. It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. Thank you for the opportunity.