The 2021 Session of the General Assembly is rapidly winding down. We are in the throes of the last week, and we have reached a budget agreement. Many bills remain up in the air.
For the second time in my legislative career, I was involved in the final budget negotiations. Last year I was appointed to serve as a conferee on the caboose budget, i.e. the one that dealt with the last six months of the fiscal year. This year I was appointed a full conferee. It is an incredible honor that I have waited a long time for.
The budget negotiations involve small group meetings of a few legislators and staff focused on specific areas of the budget. I was a lead negotiator in the area of capital outlay and also was involved intimately in the health and human services portion of the budget.
The final budget report includes a number of items of interest:
- A five percent pay increase for state employees and state-supported employees. This includes state troopers, deputy sheriffs, constitutional officers, and other state employees. The budget includes additional funding to begin addressing the pay compression issue at the Virginia State Police. The problem is that newer troopers come in at a higher rate of pay, such that long-term troopers may end up earning not much more than people with far less experience. The budget also includes funds to support raises for college faculty and our public school teachers.
- An investment in a number of construction projects at colleges and universities including buildings at the University of Mary Washington, William and Mary, Virginia Tech, and the Virginia Community College System.
- Funding to improve water quality, including for projects throughout the Commonwealth to address the state’s commitment to stormwater management and for agricultural best management practices.
- The first payment of a four-year commitment to Alleghany County and the City of Covington for their school consolidation efforts. Both the House and the Senate budget included $582,000 a year for five years. In the conference committee, we fought for additional funding and requested that the fifth year payment be made the first year, because there will be upfront expenses that have to be made when consolidation occurs. The final budget includes $1.2 million in the first year and $600,000 a year in three years to follow.
- One other major accomplishment, in the area of mental health services, was the restoration of funding to expand discharge planning at some of our jails with the highest percentage of inmates who are diagnosed with mental illness. We need to ensure folks have access to services to keep them in the community and well.
- Finally, the tax conformity legislation we adopt every session generated significant discussion and debate. The House and Senate took different approaches with respect to how the state would handle funds derived from PPP loans. The House of Delegates sought to allow businesses to deduct $25,000 in loans, and the Senate opted for $100,000. The final budget allows for businesses to deduct up to $100,000 in expenses covered by PPP loans or an income deduction of up to $100,000 for grants received through Rebuild VA.
This week also saw the final passage of my legislation to make drop boxes permanent and to empower registrars to work with voters to cure minor defects in absentee ballots. Along with other changes we have made, I am hopeful we will see continued high participation in Virginia elections. Both the House and Senate have agreed to my bill that creates a permanent study commission focused on mental health. This is a significant accomplishment, as the Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health which I have chaired for the last seven years will expire at the end of this year. My bill to eliminate presumptions against bail also passed this week. Those who are charged with a crime are innocent until proven guilty, and these misguided provisions start with a presumption of guilt.
This year I was fortunate to work with Appalachian Voices and Wild Virginia on legislation to improve our laws with respect to stop work orders and power plant closure notifications. This week saw final passage of Senate Bill 1265 to ensure DEQ expands and clarifies when they can issue a stop work order, including all work when there is a persistent violation. Under SB 1247, companies will now need to provide public notice and opportunities for public hearings when a plant announces its closure. As our energy economy transitions, communities need to be informed and provided opportunity to plan for that closure.
I was disappointed that my recommendation to shift $100 million from reserves to the Virginia Employment Commission for benefits for the long-term unemployed was rejected. However, substantial changes to the unemployment system were made. In light of the fact that the system was just overwhelmed with claims during this pandemic, Delegate Sally Hudson introduced a bill that will allow forgiveness of certain overpayments that were made through no fault of the applicant. The bill went to conference and is still awaiting final action.
A number of other noteworthy bills are still up in the air, including the expansion of the Court of Appeals and the legalization of marijuana. We have agreed to changes to the expungement laws that will bring Virginia to the forefront of states in giving citizens a second chance. The compromise includes a list of misdemeanor offenses that will be subject to automatic expungement, but it will take a number of years to develop and modernize the technological systems to implement the changes.
Thank you for allowing me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me. After Saturday, I should be back home and available in Hot Springs at (540) 839-2473, in Charlottesville at (434) 296-5491, or by email at [email protected].