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Week 5: The Budget Bill

As new controversies seem to arise with each news cycle, the General Assembly is continuing our work, convening floor sessions and committees with customary unflinchingly-courteous efficiency. Our brief session does not allow for breaks, or even holidays like MLK Day or Presidents Day. We must spend each of the 46 days we have in Richmond working towards meaningful criminal justice reform, transportation solutions, educational opportunities for an emergent STEM-driven economy, gun violence prevention, increased voting rights, and equality for all Virginians. Despite the emotional toll of the last two weeks, our state government must maintain the trust of diverse constituencies by coming together to pass a budget and complete the work we were sent here to do.

Thirteen of my bills have made it through the Senate and are being considered by the House of Delegates. My bills to ban discrimination in housing and public employment against LGBT Virginians faces tough opposition in the House. Though it passed the Senate easily, identical legislation in the House never even received a hearing. I am optimistic about my bill to establish “municipal net-metering” pilot programs, enabling localities to offset the cost of electricity used by energy-intensive buildings with power generated by renewable sources at another city or county-owned location. Another bill would ensure independent oversight of the $1 billion in energy efficiency funding allocated in 2018.

The House considered my legislation to end the modern-day debtors’ prison caused by the practice of suspending driver's licenses for non-driving (often drug-related) offenses and for those unable to pay court costs and fees. Despite overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, and the backing of the Department of Public Safety, the bill was defeated in subcommittee on a party-line vote. My bill to ban all governmental use of software prohibited by the Department of Homeland Security, including the use of Russian-owned Kasperky Lab software in our election systems, passed out of committee in the House unanimously, as did my bill to lower employment barriers for community college professors seeking to teach career and technical education/dual enrollment classes in high schools. This legislation would strengthen our employment pipeline for students who do not have access to in-demand courses in fields such as cybersecurity, emergency medical technician (EMT), veterinary science, and culinary arts. It would also address an urgent problem facing Fairfax County schools. This school year, an EMT class was cancelled and a fall semester Information Technology course was delayed until spring, both due to the lack of an instructor.

In addition to debating legislation, we have been considering amendments to the biennial budget. Major changes to the federal tax code and an infusion of revenue due to the Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. that will bring in additional out of state internet sales tax revenue complicated the normally perfunctory procedural matter of tax conformity--aligning Virginia’s tax code with the federal tax code.

Major changes in federal tax policy, which doubled the standard deduction and eliminated or reduced many itemized deductions, led to a potential $1.2 billion in surplus revenue to the Commonwealth. How to address the additional revenue and major differences between the state and federal tax codes was hotly debated for several days. A compromise plan was adopted that will return money to taxpayers through a mid-October refund of $110 per person while retaining some for key priorities.

For the first time since 2005, Virginia’s standard deduction was raised--by 50 percent--to $4,500 for individuals and $9,000 for couples. When the Governor signs this legislation, the state will be able to begin preparing tax software to process returns.

I voted in favor of the Senate budget that includes important education priorities, including: increasing teacher pay by 5%, supplanting federal funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative, and providing $70 million in school construction loans to help rebuild older derelict schools. Several key floor amendments, proposed by Senate Democrats, included increased funding for school counselors, mental health supportive housing, water quality improvement, and staff to help decrease evictions in the state.

I passed a floor amendment to increase funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund (VHTF) by $3 million. Currently one in three Virginians pays more than 30% of their income on housing, leaving them unable to pay for other necessities like healthy groceries and childcare. The VHTF provides “gap funding” to help bring affordable housing projects online, leveraging $26 for every dollar invested. The funds invested will help finance an additional $78 million in affordable housing development over the biennium. While much work remains to be done to invest more in affordable housing, I was proud that the Senate budget takes a step in the right direction.

I was also glad to help secure funding for several major projects of major importance to the 30th District. $25 million is included in the Senate budget to help the City of Alexandria’s Combined Sewer Overflow meet the tight deadline placed on the city by the General Assembly. I will continue to work with the budget conferees, members of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees, to make sure this funding is retained in the final budget. Additionally, $275 million in borrowing and funds was included to start building the new $1.1 billion dollar Virginia Tech Innovation Campus located opposite Potomac Yard that will grow our tech talent pipeline.

With so much at stake, we cannot afford to lose focus.