This past week we reached the official half way point of session known as “crossover.” As of Wednesday, the House is only hearing bills from the Senate with the exception of the budget, which was taken up Thursday – more on that later.
The highlight of the week was undoubtedly a center aisle presentation in honor of the JMU football national championship. It was a privilege to be able to recognize the outstanding student-athletes, coaching staff, and the entire JMU Nation in this presentation! I have tremendous respect for the effort, skill and determination that went into making this championship a reality. I know the Harrisonburg community and entire Commonwealth is extremely proud of this team.
We were pleased to have Coach Houston, quarterback Bryan Schor, safety Raven Greene, President Alger, Senior Vice-President Charlie King and numerous other JMU alumni and supporters that made the trip to Richmond to join us for the presentation of the commending resolution, HJ 829.
There are typically only a handful of center aisle presentations each session, and it has to be something significant to the entire Commonwealth for the Speaker to grant permission. This win certainly met that criteria. The Speaker even joined in on the fun by wearing a JMU championship ball cap on the floor!
While the House considered a significant amount of legislation last week, none was more important than the budget. The budget bill is the Commonwealth’s entire spending plan. Beyond spending for stage agencies and services, it also accounts for a sizeable portion of spending for local services.
In December of last year, Governor McAuliffe announced his introduced budget. The driving force behind adjustments to the 2016-2018 biennial budget is the over $1 billion shortfall that was announced last fall. Since the Governor’s presentation, the House Appropriations Committee conducted 5 public hearings across the state to receive input from our citizens on the priorities they would like to see addressed.
On Thursday, the House voted on our version of the budget. Our budget reflects the difficult choices and priority setting necessary to present a balanced budget. We reviewed all discretionary spending and held fast to conservative budgeting while striving to invest in the core functions of government.
K-12 Education: Last year the House re-established the policy of sending back a portion of the Lottery proceeds to our school divisions on a per-pupil basis without requiring a local match. This year the House budget sends an additional $61.6 million in Lottery Profits directly back to our school divisions. The schools get much needed flexibility in allocating these dollars where they think it is best served, be it a pay raise for their teachers or funding their share of getting to 100% of the required VRS contribution rate.
Health and Human Resources: The House, working collaboratively with the Senate and the Governor, have made significant investments in the area of mental health. The House will provide a $28.5 million increase in mental health services, to include expanding the GAP program to cover individuals up to 100% of the federal poverty level. We will also provide funding for supportive housing and same day access. Our budget recommendations will add an additional 144 DD waiver slots to meet the needs of Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens.
Higher Education: Access and affordability in higher education has been a top priority. Earlier this session I highlighted several initiatives designed to improve affordability, including my own efforts related to student loan awareness. Last session we made a significant additional investment in higher education. However, because of the shortfall the Governor proposed $80 million in cuts. While cuts remain necessary, the House restored $21.0 million to Higher Education so that no school had a reduction greater than 1.4% of their budget.
State Employees and State Troopers: As I mentioned last week, our budget invests resources to provide a compensation boost for state employees and law enforcement. An additional $88.7 million was invested to make the 3% pay raise for state employees and 2% raise for state-supported local employees a reality. Funding is also included to provide targeted increases and compression adjustments to our Deputy Sheriffs and District Court staff. Finally, an additional $15 million is included to address the starting salaries and compression of our State Troopers and Capitol Police Officers.
While overall I am supportive of the House budget proposal and voted in favor of the measure, admittedly I’m disappointed that we could not find a way to reduce or eliminate the accelerated sales tax that the Governor reinstated on a larger portion of retailers. Moving forward, I will continue to support that effort and share my sentiment with my colleagues on Appropriations.
While no budget is perfect, the House recommendations adhere to our commitment to strategically focus our resources, by keeping our promises to our state employees, and to fund the core services of government. It is important to remember this is simply another step in the budget process, next budget conferees will begin to work out the differences between the House and Senate budget proposals.
While I was on the floor until late Monday evening, Chad had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, including Broadway Mayor Tim Proctor. On Tuesday I had the pleasure of meeting a group of athletic trainers from JMU. These folks played a large part in keeping our national championship players healthy and injury free.
Later in the week I was joined by a group representing Rockingham County Schools, including Superintendent Dr. Carol Fenn. Rockingham County was recognized as one of only five school districts in the Commonwealth to achieve the AP Honor Role. School divisions are recognized with this distinction if they have achieved significant improvement in Advanced Placement course offerings and scores. I also had a visit from a group of ladies with the Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to discuss their policy priorities. Finally a large contingent of our local realtors stopped in this week, as well as EMU social work students.
While we are scheduled to adjourn in two weeks, there is still time to come visit. Please stop by my office in room 526 of the General Assembly Building if you will be in Richmond. I continue to welcome your calls and emails as well.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve as your representative in Richmond!