A Fundamental budget questionRead Now
Both houses of the General Assembly reported a proposed budget a few days after the halfway point of our 46-day legislative session. While both budgets use the Governor’s proposal as a jumping off point, often the outcomes are drastically different – especially in years of split government. A budget is a list of priorities, and it can tell a great deal about the values and priorities of its authors. Reviewing the proposed budgets from the House of Delegates, and State Senate, it is evident that these bodies have differing sets of priorities based around a central fundamental of governing: should we invest in core public services or cut revenues?
From a 10,000-foot view, the difference between our two proposed budgets comes down to that – the House has chosen to align with the Governor’s proposal of cutting more than $1 billion in taxes, mainly for large corporations and Virginia’s highest earners. The Senate proposal retains existing, already comparatively low, tax rates on those individuals and entities, and chooses instead to inject most of that $1 billion into public education.
Still, there are some areas of agreement.
The two bodies are mostly in accord on pay for state employees. Both amended budgets include an additional two percent raise for state employees. This raise will be on top of a five percent raise that was approved last year, in an attempt to better keep up with inflation. However, there is disagreement on how to allocate bonuses to qualified public servants. The Senate’s proposal is to send a $1,000 dollar bonus to all state employees on December 1st 2023, while the House’s proposal is to give targeted bonuses to the state employees who work in departments and agencies with the highest employment vacancies. I believe it is important to give these bonuses to the broadest possible swath of public servants, and I will be advocating for this measure in the final budget.
The largest difference between the two proposed budgets is the total allocation for public education. In recent weeks it was uncovered that the Youngkin administration had miscalculated the amount of funds that it would be able to allocate to local school divisions because their calculations did not take into account the elimination of the state portion of the grocery tax, an action we took last year.
The miscalculations shorted Virginia school districts approximately 220 million dollars. Both houses of the General Assembly sought to replace these finds. The House of Delegates has set aside just 4.9 million dollars to make up this funding. The Senate on the other hand, proposes 58.1 million dollars to help address the shortfall. This 58.1 million dollars would be enough to help school districts complete this fiscal year. Another component of the Senate’s budget that is not in the House Budget is the removal of the cap on state funding of school support positions. This cap, put in place during the great recession, limits the amount of funding available for positions such as custodians, assistant Superintendents, school nurses, and other support positions. By removing it, our school districts will be able to attract and retain critical staff who make our schools run better and improve our students' daily lives. The proposed Senate Budget includes over one billion dollars in direct aid to school divisions, over seven hundred million more than the amount set aside by the House of Delegates. This critical investment in our children’s education is a strong reminder of our commitment to ensuring a better future for all Virginians. In addition to our K-12 schools, the Senate Budget includes an additional twenty million dollar increase in funding for Pre-K, ensuring access to affordable early education – a key indicator of long term educational success. Finally, the Senate budget diverts all proposed additional funding from Governor Youngkin’s “lab school” proposals, which have come to be seen by many as a backdoor to publicly funded charter schools. I am a firm believer that public funds should be spent on public education.
Additionally, the proposed Senate Budget includes an increase in funding for mental and behavioral health services. Our budget sets aside an additional eight million dollars on top of what was introduced by the Governor to address the mental health crisis that is plaguing Virginia. Providing greater access to mental healthcare, particularly for our youth, will help increase the quality of life for Virginians. Additionally, providing more funding for mental health professionals will ultimately take pressure off of law enforcement as police officers will not be in the position to be responding to mental health calls.
There are major differences between the two budgets both in terms of what is in the budget and on how much money should be dedicated to particular projects. In the coming weeks, members of the House and Senate money committees will work to alleviate the discrepancies and create a conference budget that can pass in the coming weeks.
Crossing overRead Now
While the 2023 Legislative Session is only halfway over, the last few days leading up to “crossover” were a whirlwind. Each body of the General Assembly has now completed action on its own legislation and has transferred what passed to the other. The last few days prior to crossover were intense and drawn out. Committee meetings, budget meetings, and floor sessions felt like marathons. Similar to a marathon, which takes months of preparation, many of the decisions that were facing the General Assembly this session took months of preparation and deliberation leading up to final votes being cast.
Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade this past June by the U.S. Supreme Court, it became evident that the issue of reproductive freedom would be a dominant theme of session. Without the Supreme Court precedent, both anti-choice and pro-choice advocates are seeking legislative action, rallying at the Capitol and gathering in the halls of legislative offices. On the anti-choice side, legislation has been introduced to ban abortion totally, implement unnecessary, onerous barriers to accessing abortion, and ban abortion after fifteen weeks. The final bill, which has staunch support from Governor Glenn Youngkin, was introduced by Delegate Kathy Byron (R-Bedford). This bill was not docketed in the House and the Senate version introduced by Senator Steve Newman (R-Bedford) was defeated in committee. While on the pro-choice side, Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Delegate Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) introduced a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to reproductive healthcare into our state constitution. I was proud to vote for the Constitutional amendment in the Senate.
Governor Youngkin attended a “March for Life '' on Capitol Square last Wednesday, rallying with the religious school groups and activists to show his support for their cause and Delegate Byron’s bill, which he has listed as one of his top legislative priorities. Two days later the bill’s committee of origin – the House Judiciary Committee – held their final meeting without giving the bill a hearing. As such, it is dead for this session without a single vote being cast.
Another issue that has been in the headlines is the role of the State Corporation Commission in regulating utilities like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. There have been two proposed legislative changes on the Senate side to address this issue. SB1265 introduced by Senator Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) would establish a bi-annual review of rates that a utility would be able to charge for electricity, and change the way the State Corporation Commission, which regulates energy utilities, calculates allowed return on investment for the company. The calculation would change the minimum return on equity based on a peer group of other electric utilities in the south. The average return of this peer group is 10.07%, over 1% higher than what Dominion currently receives, which could potentially increase your monthly electric bill. Despite my vote against the legislation, it did pass. This bill will continue to be amended as it proceeds through the House of Delegates. A different proposal by Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) would install more parameters to protect consumers from rate hikes including restoring the State Corporation Commission’s authority to lower electric utility rates when the agency determines that customers will be overcharged. I voted for this bill in committee and was pleased to see it pass the Senate.
As we begin the second half of the session, all but one of the bills that I introduced have reported positively and await hearings in the House. My SB1133 which would create a regulated cannabis retail market for adults. Another of my bills that I am pleased to see in good posture is my legislation to allow condominium owners to apply as a group to a locality’s Stormwater Management Grant Program for joint projects. Previous state law did not specify that condominium owners could apply for these items jointly. This bill would allow more Virginians access to funds to help protect their property from flooding. My SB1085 which would establish a work group to research and propose solutions to reduce excessive vehicle noise passed. SB1087 which stipulates that companies like ancestry.com and 23andme cannot sell your genetic information without your consent, passed unanimously. Additionally, I have two bills designed to improve our elections, one to allow additional protections for election workers and another to provide more funds for election administration have passed the Senate as well. You can read more about my full legislative agenda here.
After crossover, we are officially in the second half of the session and the process in a way has started all over again. All of my bills that passed in the Senate will be put to the test in the House of Delegates, and my fellow Senators and I will begin the process of vetting all the bills that passed the House. While it may feel a bit like the movie Groundhog Day having to foster bills through a second time, the process is important to promote thoughtful legislation.
I look forward to the challenge, and it is my continued honor to serve the 30th District.
As the General Assembly nears the midway point of the Legislative Session, committee dockets balloon with oft-amended bills on some of the more substantial and complicated issues of the session. Members and interest groups, searching for consensus, known as “peace in the valley” in General Assembly parlance, are coming to final agreements, or pushing forward against opposition in committee. As the Chairman of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee, I have the opportunity to set committee dockets and work with stakeholders on varied issues before they come before the committee as a whole. This week has been especially interesting as we tackle the issues of Virginia’s gaming industry, affordable housing access, workforce development, and even the naming of an official Virginia State pony (the proposed icon is the Chincoteague pony).
Since Virginia made its first foray into expanded options for gaming several years ago, we have seen a drastic increase in the size and diversity of our gaming industry. While these forms of gaming have already generated a great deal of economic development and revenue for the state, there have been concerning trends in increased gambling addiction, and unclear effects on lower income and young Virginians. While there are some benefits to the gaming industry, I do not believe that we should view it as a panacea. I was glad to see two proposals which would have dramatically expanded the industry – one to place a casino in northern Virginia, and one to permanently authorize and allow the expanded placement of slot machines in restaurants and convenience stores – struck from the committee docket.
Over the course of the session the committee has taken up proposals to alter the state’s regulations on our building code inspectors, and removing licensing requirements for landscape architects, geologists, interior designers, and auctioneers, among others – part of a push by the Governor to arbitrarily reduce regulations by 25% over his term. We have tackled a number of proposals to further reduce the likelihood of Virginians being evicted or denied housing, a long-time priority of mine. The committee has also reviewed a proposal to create television production grant funds to incentivize more production of streaming and cable shows like Dopesick. There has also been a significant focus on the treatment of our veterans, and creating pathways for novel treatments of PTSD such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy. During the first week of session, we passed legislation to require the Department of Emergency Management to stand up a comprehensive emergency heat response plan in order to more adequately protect Virginians most vulnerable residents – the infirmed, elderly, and homeless, from major heat events, and more recently, passed legislation expanding our local government advisory boards to meet virtually, improving citizen participation and diversity in membership by lowering the barriers to attend and be a member of these committees.
In the coming week we will complete our work on these diverse topics, as well as delving into state procurement, regulations for construction contracts, and even proposals from Governor Youngkin to ban the use of TikTok on state devices – truly putting the “general” in General Laws. I look forward to finishing the work of the Senate, and welcoming a new and equally diverse set of bills to my committee from my House colleagues in the coming weeks.