General Assembly Update (3/1/11)
At 5 p.m. on Sunday, February 27, the General Assembly approved a new budget (one day late) and adjourned. This budget represents a major improvement from that which was approved by the Republican-dominated House of Delegates two weeks ago and is a major victory for higher education, mental health, and our local school divisions.
During the debate on the House version of the budget several weeks ago, a number of us took the floor and began our criticism of the proposal with the phrase, “Transportation is important, but…”, followed by a discussion of a particular issue that we considered important, from education and aid to localities to mental health and public safety. Governor McDonnell and the majority party in the House attempted, in their proposed budget, to take monies from these priorities and move them into the transportation fund. Democrats in the House said that while we wanted to increase transportation funding, we refused to take money from schools to do it.
Despite our arguments, the House passed its budget two weeks ago. The battle, however, was not over, and the budget that was finally passed late Sunday evening reflects many of the priorities that we consider important. It restores the cuts the House Republicans made to K-12 education. This dramatically affects Charlottesville and Albemarle, which, under the House plan, would have lost substantial funding. The final budget also increases investments in higher education by $100 million, including for community colleges. The University of Virginia will also receive another $3 million for cancer research and clinical trials. Public broadcasting was saved from elimination, but did incur a 10% cut.
Other budget highlights include:
- Additional money for transportation through accelerated bonding, not at the expense of schools and public safety
- A contribution of $64 million to the Rainy Day Reserve Fund
- Increased funding for Medicaid providers, restoring some cuts made in the House proposed budget
- Restoration of funding for Drug Courts and AIDS awareness cut in the House budget
- Additional money for local police (HB 599)
- Funding for judicial vacancies
- Restoration of funding for Planned Parenthood cut in the House budget
The serious problems with the $17.6 billion VRS unfunded liability have not been fully addressed by this budget. The Governor’s proposal, however, to have state employees pay more back into VRS than they would receive in raises was defeated and, instead, they will be required to pay 5 percent of their salary toward their retirement and get reimbursed the full 5 percent in a pay raise. This will inject some additional money into the fund but not enough to make a substantial dent in the unfunded liability. VRS funding will continue to be an issue over the next several years unless the General Assembly starts making larger, consistent contributions to the fund. For employees in the Optional Retirement Plan, the state will not reduce its contribution this year.
I will be back in Richmond on April 4, 2011 for the special session on redistricting and the veto session. I will do my best to keep you informed of the redistricting process and what we can expect for the 57th district.
I appreciate the input you have given me over the last 47 days of session and hope you will continue to be engaged in the pressing issues facing our Commonwealth. Please feel free to contact my office any time with questions, concerns, or suggestions. My number in Richmond is (804) 698-1057 and you may reach me by email at email@example.com. I look forward to serving you in the coming weeks.