The session is rapidly winding down as we move towards our final week. The budget is the primary issue still in dispute, with a $2.8 billion difference between the House and the Senate versions. Closing this gap seems insurmountable, but a couple of scenarios seem possible.
First, a miracle could happen, and a budget compromise would be reached before our scheduled adjournment on Saturday. The compromise would need to involve the Senate and House retreating from the tax cuts included in the two versions of the budget and coming to an agreement somewhere in the middle. Inevitably, many things that the Senate funded will be left out or reduced. This is a possible scenario, but it’s difficult to know how agreement on such diverse viewpoints can be achieved in a week’s time.
A second scenario is that the General Assembly adjourns next Saturday and the Governor calls a special session on the budget later in the month. Such a special session is not unprecedented and would give budget negotiators more time to identify areas of compromise.
Beyond the budget, some other matters remain undecided. Next week we are supposed to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court of Virginia. We have not yet reached a compromise on that issue, and this is high stakes poker. In addition to those two vacancies, a couple dozen judicial seats around the Commonwealth also need to be filled. The delegations in each of those circuits are working towards agreement on the local judges. One of the three positions on the State Corporation Commission is also vacant because the House of Delegates allowed that appointment to lapse earlier this session. Depending on what happens with the Supreme Court appointments, there could be vacancies on the Court of Appeals. As I said, this is high stakes poker.
If the vacancies are not filled by the General Assembly, they are filled by the Governor. Senate leadership has made it clear to the House that the Senate has no intention of abdicating our responsibility to fill these vacancies, and we will not approve appointments that the Governor makes on an interim basis. To become a judge, a lawyer must give up his or her practice to accept the job, which means that whoever takes an interim appointment will have to reestablish his or her practice next January. Candidly, we rely on our court system and the State Corporation Commission to function smoothly, so the legislature needs to do its job and reach agreement. Given the number of vacancies and moving parts, we have lots of room to reach a compromise.
A number of policy matters that have drawn significant interest from Virginians have come to a head this week.
Senator John Bell’s Senate Bill 463, which sought to ban the use of campaign funds for personal use, was killed in the House earlier this week. This is commonsensical, but it is difficult to define personal use. The Senate crafted SB 463 relying on definitions put forward by the Federal Election Commission. Many times, over the last number of years, constituents have expressed concern to me about the laxity of Virginia’s campaign finance laws, and we all have read stories about politicians using campaign contributions for personal use. I had hoped we had finally put forward a bill that would pass, but we will have to go back to the drawing board.
Senate Bill 354 from Richard Stuart continued his crusade for improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay. For several years, he has been focused on cleaning up the sewer outflow from the City of Richmond. Richmond is an old city with old sewer lines. The combined sewer overflow area covers about 12,000 acres and has 26 outflow points into the James River. Cleaning this up is an expensive proposition and inevitably forces the locality to raise property taxes to do so. The state has been attempting to assist the City in resolving the matter, as it has with other jurisdictions in the past. In 2020 a compromise was reached establishing a timeline for Richmond to address this fully by 2035. Sen. Stuart sponsored a bill this year moving up the timeline by five years because he felt the 2020 deal was no good. The bill as introduced would have forced Richmond to increase taxes significantly. SB 354 passed out of the Senate with language allowing Richmond out if they did not have the resources to meet the shortened timeline. The House killed the bill. The good news is that Richmond is still on track with the already agreed upon plan to resolve this issue.
A package of bills put forward by Senator Bill Stanley to promote the welfare of animals at breeding facilities that are sold for research purposes is still moving through the process. Senate Bills 87, 88, 90, and 604 were reported out of Committee and will be voted on by the full House of Delegates next week. Sen. Jennifer Boysko has also been working to help these animals, but she saw two of her bills fail this week in the House. Sen. Stanley has been working with a facility in Virginia to adopt out beagles, and we were fortunate to have two four-legged friends entertaining our hall this week. Both beagles have been adopted.
Another unusual sight around the building this week was the arrival of packing boxes. The new General Assembly Building located at the corner of 9th and Broad Street is expected to open in October. As we did five years ago, we have to pack up our offices in preparation for the move later this year. I toured the new building earlier this session and am looking forward to working out of the new space during the 2023 Session.
It is an honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia, and I look forward to your input during the final week of session. If I can be of service to you, please contact me at [email protected] or at (804) 698-7525.