The General Assembly returned to Richmond on April 3 for our 2019 reconvened session to consider gubernatorial vetoes and amendments. The governor has 30 days from the adjournment of the regular session to sign, veto, or offer amendments to legislation. The authority of Virginia’s governor to amend legislation is atypical compared to the president and many other governors. This power provides an opportunity to impact policy in a significant way.
This year’s session was unique in many ways. The areas of controversy surrounding all three statewide office holders were huge concerns that put a chill over the session. For legislators, the political melee was painful and upsetting, but we had to focus on our work and avoid the frenzy. Governor Northam seemed to disappear into his work and avoid the public for the remaining weeks of session and some weeks thereafter. The end product of this focused work yielded a number of significant amendments for the General Assembly to consider this week.
Typically reconvened sessions are not devoid of controversy. Governors’ amendments or vetoes are often on contentious matters. However this year, Governor Northam sought to address policy concerns on which the General Assembly failed to act. For that reason, the 2019 reconvened session was one of the most, and perhaps the most, significant reconvened sessions that I have witnessed. There were at least three substantial achievements this week.
For years I have focused on reforming our mental health system and have traveled throughout the Commonwealth to visit local community services boards, our state psychiatric hospitals, and some nonprofit and private entities in the field. During this journey I have become fairly well acquainted with what Virginia offers to people in need of mental health services, and I know we must do a better job responding to people in need no matter where they live in the Commonwealth.
One key priority in improving our system is the rebuilding of Central State Hospital, which is located in Dinwiddie County, near Petersburg. Central State was the first psychiatric hospital for African-Americans in the country. In addition to its historical importance, the hospital houses the only maximum security forensic unit. People who are charged with very serious crimes and are awaiting evaluation are located in this unit. The newest building at the site is over 40 years old, and the facilities are neither therapeutic nor safe. The hospital is held together by superglue and duct tape. Nonetheless, the people who work there do the very best they can and are dedicated to providing the best service to the residents.
Two years ago I asked Governor McAuliffe and the heads of the money committees to come up with a plan for replacing Central State. This is not an original idea to me. For at least the last 15 years, since the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report stating the need to replace it, the issue has been on the table. The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services developed a plan that was included in the Governor’s budget that was released in December. The plan called for a seven-year build-out at the price of around $360 million. The General Assembly rejected the proposal because the plan did not reflect the urgency of the situation and came with too hefty a price tag. The administration responded by devising a $315 million, five-year plan. The General Assembly adopted this plan that honors our history and addresses the current need to provide a therapeutic environment for those in need.
The second important action was passage of an amendment ending the practice of suspending an individual’s driver’s license solely because he or she could not pay court costs. About a generation ago, Virginia started suspending the drivers’ licenses of those who had unpaid fines and costs. Suspension was viewed to be a mechanism through which prompt payment could be leveraged. That did not prove to be the case. About 600,000 Virginians today have lost their privilege to operate a motor vehicle simply because they could not pay court costs. The law created an untenable situation where low-income individuals who have to drive to work subject themselves to a jailable offense if they are caught. Many people have compared this to a debtors’ prison. For many years, we have tried to change the law to give people a second chance and provide them an opportunity to work and repay those fines and costs. The Senate has passed such legislation in recent years only for the bills to die in the House of Delegates in committee. This year, the Governor introduced an amendment to the budget to end this practice and to reinstate driving privileges for those whose licenses have been suspended. The success of this amendment will be life-changing for many Virginians.
Finally, one of the most critical successes was the adoption of a plan to fund necessary improvements to Interstate 81. Anyone who travels I-81 knows it to be unreliable and unsafe. The General Assembly has waffled on the issue over the years because of the high cost and opposition to any mechanisms for raising the money to fix the road. A study last year showed that over $2 billion worth of projects are necessary to improve the corridor. At the end of February, the legislature left Richmond without any real plan to move forward. Earlier this week, the General Assembly approved the Governor’s amendments to raise the money.
The plan will raise about $151 million for the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund. The new money comes from a 2.1% fuel tax increase, which amounts to roughly six or seven cents a gallon, as well as some statewide fees. The increase in the gas tax in the region will produce about $60 million. The remaining new funding for the I-81 Corridor comes from raising truck registration fees and diesel and road taxes. Those statewide increases will also benefit the I-64 and I-95 corridors, as well as the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and other interstate projects. The money raised for I-81 will free up millions of dollars for other road projects in the planning districts along I-81 and benefit many of my constituents. Likewise, the improvements will increase safety and, in my view, create economic opportunity throughout the western part of the state. The plan also reflects the disproportionate amount of degradation to the roads by the high volume of trucks on I-81.
Any decision to raise taxes requires you to be critical. However I got a practical perspective on the gas tax last week. The gas tax in West Virginia is about $.30 a gallon. Virginia’s gas tax, which fluctuates based on the wholesale price of gasoline, is less than $.17 a gallon. Last weekend my wife and I went to White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia for a dinner. We gassed up in Covington and paid $2.49 a gallon. In White Sulfur Springs, the two gas stations we passed had gasoline at $2.59 and $2.49 a gallon. While a number of factors play a role in the price of gasoline, the increased tax in West Virginia was not apparent in the price to the public perhaps because wholesalers absorb a large portion of gas taxes. Nonetheless I know that some people will not be happy about the increase. In my view, we could not continue to ignore the high number of accidents, the lengthy delays, and the crumbling infrastructure. We had to act. The Governor’s proposal was a reasonable approach to getting it done.
The Governor was not completely successful. For example, we could not muster the votes to grant tax relief to low income earners. Nor could we surmount a ruling by the Speaker of the House of Delegates about the germaneness of the Governor’s attempt to pass a truly enforceable hands-free driving law. However, this does not diminish the fact that the 2019 reconvened session is one of the most consequential in modern history. The successes we achieved will make a difference in the lives of Virginians.
Although our legislative work for 2019 is now complete, we still have an unfilled judgeship in Rockbridge County that must be addressed. It is my hope we will convene in a special session to make that appointment or allow for a gubernatorial appointment. We will continue to have discussions about that as we move forward.
Thank you for allowing me to serve you. It is a great honor to be a member of the Senate of Virginia, and I appreciate your trust. If I can be of assistance or if you have any questions, please contact me at [email protected] or by phone at (434) 296-5491 in Charlottesville or (540) 839-2473 in Hot Springs.