We have reached the end of the 2015 General Assembly session. We are scheduled to adjourn Sine die tomorrow, February 28, and we expect to do so on time if not sooner.
This session I believe both parties are to be commended for striking a bipartisan tone and getting the job done. We have worked to provide our school systems more flexibility to educate our children, adopted efforts to make our campuses and communities safer, and continued to only advance policies that foster an environment for job creation and business growth.
Yesterday, both chambers passed the budget conference report. Completing work on the budget early is certainly a rarity, but due to the cooperation between the Republican led House and Senate we were able to accomplish this task. This is in stark contrast to the way things are done in Washington.
This was a budget that I was pleased to support. Since the House and Senate budget were relatively similar to begin with, most of what the House had adopted remained in the final conference report.
While I don’t want to rehash what we already discussed, I do want to provide a few additional updates that are worth noting.
First and foremost, the budget remains a conservative and structurally sound budget. It pre-pays $129.5 million for the 2017 rainy-day fund deposit, restoring the balance to roughly $429 million. The budget does not raise taxes on hardworking citizens, nor does it raise fees as originally proposed by the Governor. The budget did, however, retain the additional compensation for our state employees, providing a 2% pay raise. Additional funding was also included to continue to address compression issues with our salary structure to ensure new hires are not making more than veteran employees with the same job.
This budget is also good for local governments. It restores the $30 million in funding cuts adopted by the supplemental budget to address the shortfall. It also offers a 2% pay raise for state-supported local employees, as well as the state portion of a 1.5% pay raise for our teachers. This is the second raise offered for our teachers in the last three years. As mentioned previously, the budget deposits $193 million into the teacher retirement fund to ensure solvency and save our localities over $30 million in anticipated costs.
Finally, this budget offers additional support for our most vulnerable citizens, especially in the area of mental health. This includes funding for targeted services to roughly 22,000 seriously mentally-ill patients, including a prescription drug benefit. New support is also provided for children’s psychiatry and crisis services as well as six new drop-off centers for crisis intervention services. In addition, the budget provides a total of $9 million for housing and homelessness, with a portion of this funding targeted specifically for rapid rehousing efforts for our veterans.
Now that the budget is complete, it will be sent to the Governor for his consideration. We will return to Richmond in April to address any amendments the Governor may offer to the budget.
My Legislation I was pleased to have five bills pass this session that I chief-patroned, along with 19 bills I co-patroned. Among the bills I carried, HB 1698, HB 1699, HB 1700, HB 1701 and HB 2314 have all received final approval in the General Assembly and will be sent to Governor McAuliffe to sign into law. To view the list of the legislation I co-patroned, please click here.
Thanks to everyone that participated in my legislative survey this year! The General Assembly addressed many of the issues on which I had requested your input. I certainly considered your thoughts when casting my vote. To view the survey results online, please click here.
A Special Thank You
I just wanted to take a moment to thank our intern this session, Micah Smith. Micah is a James Madison University student that made the trip to Richmond every week to help out in our office. He was a great worker that I know has a bright future ahead. He contributed significantly to the work of our office, and helped to ensure all business was handled in a prompt and professional manner.
Even though we are finishing up in Richmond, I still had a good many visitors stop by my office since my last update. Lisa Hensley and Melinda See came to discuss animal related legislation that they felt passionately about. A large contingent of JMU students came to the Capitol last Wednesday. This included member of the Student Government Association, as well as students in Dr. Lili Peaslee’s Public Policy Senior Seminar Course and former Delegate (Professor) Pete Giesen’s Virginia Politics class. That night it was great to join the entire group at the JMU Alumni Dinner. It was certainly a group of intelligent and motivated students. I also met with EMU Social Work students last week to discuss various legislation that they had an interest in.
Yesterday, in between floor sessions, I had the privilege to attend a swearing in ceremony at the Capitol for a class of Conservation Police Officers. Among the class was a local officer, Justin Chambers. I commend Justin for his commitment to serve the Commonwealth!
Since our schedule is so unpredictable in the final days of session, unfortunately I missed personally meeting with several folks. However, Chad was able to speak with a large group of Rockingham 4-H’ers and our Extension Agent, Dara Booher. He also met with Tim Jibson on behalf of the State Employees Association.
Thanks to everyone that came to Richmond this year!
I hope you and your family made it safely through the winter weather last evening. I encourage you to remain vigilant while driving, given the low temperatures expected throughout the week. The frigid temperatures will create prime conditions for black ice and slick roads.
Despite the snow, we are continuing on with our necessary business as we quickly approach the end of session. Last week was crossover, the point at which only Senate bills can be considered in the House, and House bills can only be heard in the Senate. The full membership of each chamber also took up their respective budget bill this past Thursday. I want to take a moment to discuss the budget that passed out of the House.
A Conservative Budget
Virginia families make tough choices to balance their budgets each year. They have the right to expect the same of their state government, and I believe the House budget proposal does just that.
The budget we passed on Thursday is conservative, responsible, and, as constitutionally required, balanced. General fund spending is down $1.1 billion from just last year. We set aside $99.5 million for the rainy day fund to guard against future tax increases, eliminated $42.5 million in debt and $10.2 million in fees that the Governor included in his original budget proposal. In addition, the budget dials back the Governor’s original proposal to broaden the accelerated sales tax program. As I have said before, this program is nothing more than an accounting gimmick, and I’m glad this budget sought to eliminate this burden on more businesses in the Commonwealth.
At the same time, we are using the resources from a modest increase in revenue to make targeted investments in K-12, provide our state employees and state supported local employees with a modest pay increase, and strengthen our safety net for those in the most need.
It’s worth noting that I also supported budget related legislation this session to prevent state agencies from spending beyond their means with IOUs that haven’t been approved by the General Assembly. We have a responsibility to make sure that your tax dollars are spent wisely, and the House of Delegates this year once again has served as check on runaway government spending.
Education Budget Highlights
The House budget includes $55 million in state funding for a 1.5 percent teacher pay raise, as well as $1.1 million in state funding to support teacher, principal and school board members’ professional development. In addition, the budget directs $190 million to the VRS teacher retirement account. While helping to reduce the unfunded liability in the account, this will also help reduce local school divisions share of the VRS costs.
Virginia has some of the top colleges and universities in the country, but costs have been increasing and too many Virginia students find themselves on waitlists or unable to attend our best schools. We worked to address both of those issues in the budget by targeting funds to open up new enrollment slots and providing additional funding to make it more affordable to transfer from Community College to a four year institution. These provisions, combined with other legislative efforts, such as the legislation to cap student athletic fees, can hopefully work to make a college degree more affordable and attainable for Virginia students.
I’m in Richmond right now to serve you, my constituents, and represent your interests in the general assembly. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously. Lawmakers are not entitled to the public trust, it must be earned.
Over the last two years, that trust has been shaken in Virginia. That’s why I supported additional reforms that will continue to strengthen our ethics laws. The most significant change includes a $100 cap on gifts. In addition, the General Assembly has adopted provisions to bolster Virginia’s independent ethics advisory panel. Last year, the House passed legislation that also prohibits the governor from accepting campaign contributions from companies knowingly seeking grants from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed that legislation. The House has included it again in this year’s ethics reform package, because the public deserves confidence that their tax dollars are being spent on core government functions, not political considerations.
Last week I had the privilege to meet with Janita McNemar with the Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education. I also had a great visit with a large group of our local realtors. Joyce Krech, representing the Small Business Development Center in Harrisonburg, stopped by to discuss several exciting new initiatives that they will be working on in the coming year. It was great to see several local cub scouts that made the trip to Richmond to learn more about the legislative process. Finally, while I was in session, Chad was able to speak with Josh Huffman. Josh made the trip with Americans for Prosperity.
Though it seems like we just began, last week marked the midpoint of the 2015 Session. Tomorrow is Crossover, meaning that after tomorrow the House can only consider Senate Bills and the Senate can only consider House bills. We are now less than three weeks away from adjournment of the 2015 Regular Session.
Yesterday afternoon the House Appropriations Committee released their finalized budget proposal. While I will highlight other budget provisions next week after the passage by the full House, I want to take a moment to focus on provisions in the budget that will help extend targeted healthcare safety net services to needy families. These budget provisions will provide additional treatment services to the seriously mentally ill, nearly double funding for Virginia’s free clinics, and build on past investments in community health services.
Last year the House of Delegates overwhelmingly rejected Medicaid Expansion. The House Budget does not include Medicaid expansion and does not fund Governor McAuliffe’s “Healthy Virginia” entitlement program. It will, however, strengthen the safety net for those Virginians who need it the most by increasing access to healthcare without creating a new government program.
Tomorrow final action in the House will be taken on several of the bills I am pursuing this session. Assuming they are all approved on the final vote on the House floor, seven bills will advance to the Senate. Of the measures I have discussed previously, HB 1698, HB 1701, HB 2029, HB 2314 and HB 2315 will move on.
In addition, I have two other measures that will be considered by the Senate that I have yet to discuss.
Bridgewater Split Precinct (HB 1699)
This bill corrects a split precinct in the Town of Bridgewater that currently impacts only about 22 voters. Split precincts can cause unnecessary confusion for poll workers and additional expense for localities and local taxpayers. This is simply a good government measure that seeks to eliminate this unnecessary House District split precinct. Delegate Landes, the other legislator impacted by this legislation, fully supports the bill and has signed on as a co-patron.
Lights on Motorcycles (HB 1700)
I had hoped to pass a bill that was broader in scope, but that was ultimately not the desire of the Transportation Committee where the bill was heard. HB 1700 as originally proposed would have allowed motorcyclists to utilize auxiliary lighting on their bikes. Currently, State Police does not permit the use of such lighting, even though nearly all of our neighboring states allow it. Motorcyclists like to utilize auxiliary lighting to improve the look of their bike, but it also serves the dual purpose of improving the visibility of a motorcycle, especially from the side profile.
While this language was ultimately stricken from the legislation, the bill still removes a strange provision in current code that applies a five second time limit on how long a modulating motorcycle brake light can modulate when applied by the operator. I’m not sure of the original intent for the time limit, but as far as I can tell it serves no practical purpose.
While I was busy with committee meetings most of the week, I still had a few visitors from home. I enjoyed meeting briefly with our County Administrator, Joe Paxton, our Deputy County Administrator, Stephen King, and one of our Board of Supervisor members, Bill Kyger. On Friday, Supervisor Kyger was nice enough to speak in support of my legislation to correct the split precinct in Bridgewater. In addition, several of our local State Police Officers made the trip to Richmond, as well as Jen Blosser representing Crossroads to Brain Injury Recovery in Harrisonburg. Finally, Chad had the opportunity to meet with Jill McGlaughlin, a parent advocating legislation that would implement training requirements to help teachers identify students who may have dyslexia.