The special session began almost six weeks ago. We are finally getting down to the heart of the matter as budget discussions ramp up.
We are operating without a joint operating agreement, a procedural resolution, between the House and the Senate. The agreements stipulate the rules and parameters to govern conduct. The Senate is meeting a few days a week in person, and the House is meeting remotely for committee meetings and floor sessions. So the session goes on.
There is good news on the budget. While Virginia is still facing a recessionary economy due to the pandemic, some revenues are increasing thus giving us some flexibility. We still must make dramatic reductions in spending this year, but I have been working hard on my priorities.
Primary and secondary education remains our top priority. Even during these challenging times, we have to make sure that we invest in the future. Many people are worried that the loss in enrollment, or the average daily membership, will reduce school funding. We are aware of this factor. Funding for this school year is based on the average daily membership as of this past winter. We are not going to reduce that level of funding. We will address this issue more fully in the regular session of 2021.
You will recall that $135 million in new spending for mental health was put on hold because of the pandemic. After so many years of consistent increases in funding in recent years, I was frustrated that we might lose momentum at the same time access to mental health services is even more critical. One of the primary goals was to fully fund STEP-VA, a plan to ensure a breadth of community services is available to every Virginian regardless of where they live. People should be able to access the services they need when they need them.
While we cannot restore everything, the Senate budget includes funding for discharge planning, crisis services, permanent supportive housing, and pilot programs to reduce the census at our state hospitals. The bed crisis at our state hospitals has worsened during the pandemic. Cases of COVID-19 among patients and staff members has made the critical shortage of beds even more acute. Sometimes when beds are available, the existence of the virus has shut down the hospital. There are people languishing in emergency rooms without proper treatment, and we must address this urgent situation.
Other priorities, such as additional money for STEP-VA and increased provider rates, are contingent upon improved revenues. We still have so much more to do, but I am thankful the Senate has restored some of the mental health dollars.
The Senate’s budget will also include some other local priorities in the 25th District. Funding for Green Pastures, also known as the Longdale Recreation Area in Alleghany County was restored. Green Pastures is important for many reasons. First, it wasn’t that long ago that our state park system was segregated. The Green Pastures Park was developed in a section of national forest in Alleghany County for African-American residents. Once our park system became integrated in the 1960s, the use of Green Pastures declined and now is in need of work. Thankfully over the years many residents from the eastern end of Alleghany County have worked hard to maintain the property, which is still meaningful to families who grew up in the area. Restoring the property is also important in terms of racial justice. If the budget amendments are agreed to by the House and signed by the Governor, the funding will incorporate Green Pastures into our state park system and keep the area open and accessible to the public.
The other park-related project I have been working on relates to Natural Bridge. This state park has an incredible amount of potential to be a gateway to the entire State Park system given its location and amount of retail space. Since Natural Bridge has been added to our park system, it has been more accessible and generated more visits. The Park only has two full-time employees, which is insufficient to ensure the long-term success of the Park. I introduced budget amendments during the 2020 Session to provide three additional staff members. The Senate budget during this special session will also include the funding for the Park.
I am hopeful these amendments will be agreed to by the House of Delegates. This is a step in the right direction. There are so many needs, and we are committed to doing the best we can with the resources that are available to us.
Virginia has seen over 146,000 cases of COVID, and over 3000 Virginians have lost their lives to this virus. Several legislators from both sides of the aisle have been sick and recovered. I wish a speedy recovery to Governor Northam and the First Lady of Virginia, Pam Northam.
It continues to be my honor to serve in the Senate of Virginia. If you have questions or concerns, please reach out to me at [email protected].