The 2020 General Assembly Session seems so long ago. Way back when we were running a surplus and adopting a budget that funded so many critical priorities in the Commonwealth.
During the last recession we had to reduce educational spending, and we did not catch back up to 2008 spending levels until this year. We made huge investments in K-12 education, including some targeted funding for rural school divisions.
One of my missions over the last several years has been to try to rebuild our system of mental health care. This year we were able to invest more than $150 million into behavioral health services. We took huge steps forward to completing the investment into STEP-VA to ensure every Virginian has access to vital community services.
Because of the pandemic most of that money is on hold. Many other items specific to the 25th District – investment in the Alleghany and Covington schools in the event of consolidation, Green Pastures Recreation Area and Natural Bridge State Park – were also put on hold.
Despite what many have heard, the primary purpose of the special session has been to deal with our budget shortfall. While the budget has grown remarkably over the years through non-general funds that are designated for specific purposes, the general fund has remained basically static, about $45 billion over the biennium. About $2.7 billion of that will have to be cut during the special session. Balancing our budget is the major work we must accomplish. Without new funding, we will simply need to wait to move forward on these priorities.
The scope of the special session was broadened to include criminal justice reforms. We have an opportunity to make our criminal justice system fairer. We are working on legislation, with the Chiefs of Police, the Sheriffs Association and the Virginia State Police, to try to find a way to restore trust in police, and to ensure they have the tools and training to do their jobs while developing relationships with the community they serve. We need to begin restoring mutual trust and begin to heal. The details will continue to be worked out as we move forward.
We will also address issues related to COVID-19 during the special session. The discussions will include matters relating to the loss of healthcare, housing, and employment. We have many discussions and tough decisions ahead of us.
The logistics of the special session are complicated. In the Senate, we have been planning our work for a number of months. We are holding our daily floor sessions at the Science Museum of Virginia. All of our committee meetings will be virtual, and we have developed a process to allow for the public to sign up and offer comment electronically. All of the meetings will be live-streamed.
The House of Delegates has chosen a different path. They are going to conduct all their work remotely. Frankly, I am not sure how this will work. If we are going to accomplish things and finish the people’s work in a timely manner, we need to find a common plan and work together. I remain hopeful a plan can be devised to allow us to move forward in an expeditious manner.
It continues to be a high honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If you would like to provide feedback or comments, please feel free to contact me by email at [email protected] or at PO Box 5462, Charlottesville 22905.