A lot of turmoil has embroiled many of the top officials in Richmond over the past week. Amidst the uncertainty and onslaught of national media, we must focus on the work at hand. We only have until February 23 to act on hundreds of bills and finalize the budget. With crossover behind us, I can report on a number of controversial topics.
We came into the 2019 session with bold ideas to fix Interstate 81. As I’ve said before, I-81 is the economic lifeline of western Virginia. Due in large part to the high volume of truck traffic, drivers cannot rely upon traveling on I-81 in a timely manner. Traffic is often stopped, sometimes for long periods of time, due to accidents. Last year the General Assembly directed the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop a plan (Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Plan) to address the problems. While a plan was developed, consensus was not reached. As a result, multiple approaches developed and were put forward by legislators in the corridor.
Senator Mark Obenshain carried a toll bill (SB 1716), which was backed by the Administration. As I’ve said before, I think tolls would put unneeded burdens on alternative routes as vehicles, primarily trucks, would divert from the toll road. Senator John Edwards proposed (SB 1470) raising the gas tax and giving I-81 a disproportionately large amount of the money raised from that tax increase. Of course that drew opposition from other parts of the state. Senator Emmett Hanger sought to create a regional authority (SB 1322) in the 81 corridor that could raise revenue primarily through a regional gas tax increase. The revenue from such a plan would not be sufficient to meet the demand. Finally, I proposed (SB 1770) we eliminate some of the taxing districts already established in the Commonwealth and return to a statewide approach to funding transportation.
Ultimately the legislature punted on all of the proposals. We are left with another year to study the problem and come up with another solution. We do not need to study this issue. We know what to do, and we just have to figure out how to fund the improvements. Raising sufficient funds will likely require a hybrid approach that involves a regional gas tax and a statewide tax. The alternative, to create a toll road, is just not the right idea in my view. I would prefer to create a statewide system, but I am in the minority.
Years ago there were efforts, primarily by the cities of Norfolk and Richmond, to create riverboat gambling in Virginia. Despite the push, those efforts failed. For the past several years, Senator Louise Lucas has championed casino gambling as a way to create economic growth in the city of Portsmouth. This year might bring success.
This past year, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe received federal recognition, which allows them to establish casino gambling. With that coming, the cities of Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth have been contemplating plans to build casinos of their own. All of those bills were combined during the General Assembly process into a single complicated bill (SB 1126). First, the bill will require the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study the issue. Second, after the study is complete, legislation authorizing the casino gambling will only take effect if passed again during the 2020 General Assembly Session. Third, the voters in the jurisdictions previously mentioned will have the opportunity to approve casino gambling via a referendum. If approved, the casinos would be developed in a highly regulated manner that ensures revenues will be spent on public purposes. While I am skeptical about casino gambling as a form of economic development, the scheme is tightly drawn and allows ample time for careful planning.
We came into the session with great optimism that legislation would pass to reform the way in which we draw legislative and congressional district lines. I again introduced legislation to create a commission to draw the lines, and One Virginia 2021 put forward another proposal. Both of those measures failed. The third, successful bill (SJ 306) stipulates that groups outside the legislature will draw the lines, but legislators will have involvement and oversight. The House of Delegates also passed a redistricting reform bill (HJ 615). Both bills need to pass the House and Senate in the same format. Because there is still a great deal of difference between the two proposals, I am certain the bills will end up in conference, where a small number of legislators will develop a compromise.
On Thursday, the House and Senate passed versions of the budget. In the area of education, the Senate budget notably includes a five percent increase for teacher pay, $12.1 million for additional school counselors, and $15.5 million more for financial aid. The Senate plan also includes $78.5 million for the Water Quality Improvement Fund and $15 million for broadband. You can read more about the specifics of the Senate and House budget proposals in the subcommittee reports.
In terms of my specific requests, the budget did not include extra money for state parks, but it did incorporate a number of recommendations from the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century. The continued support of the legislature will move us towards building a public mental health system that responds to the needs of all Virginians. Investments in that area are varied, including improving treatment for those who are incarcerated, increasing investments in permanent supportive housing, and funding STEP-VA. We are remaking the face of public mental health services in Virginia. It’s a slow, but steady march to which I am committed.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the state Senate. If I can be of service to your or if you have feedback or input during these closing weeks of session, please contact my office at (804) 698-7525 or by email at [email protected] .