The Virginia General Assembly will return to Richmond on Wednesday, January 14, 2015, to begin its 46-day “short” session. Republicans will remain in control of both chambers, while Democrats control the top three statewide offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. This either sets the stage for a wide variety of bipartisan successes or, in the alternative, a partisan gridlock. Hopefully, there will be more of the former and less of the latter. Here are some things to watch as the Assembly unfolds:
- What will happen with the state budget? Largely because of federal sequestration, the Virginia economy has not been rebounding from the recession as quickly and as robustly as everyone had hoped. The consequence of this has been lower revenues coming into our treasury and greater challenges with our budget. My budget priority has always been K-12 education. According to our independent state watchdog, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), state spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, is less now than it was in 2005. Much of the magic of education happens in the classroom, and it is essential to pay good teachers the salaries necessary to get the job done. State-sponsored raises for teachers have been virtually nonexistent in recent years, and that needs to change. But it is not just K-12 education that needs additional funding. We also need investments in Workforce development, community colleges, and our colleges and universities. Another recent report from JLARC noted that, in FY2013, the Commonwealth spent $341 million in federal, state, and local monies on Workforce development, but only 16 percent of Virginia businesses surveyed used our Workforce programs to find employees. We simply need to do a better job with the limited monies that we have.
- How can we jump start the economy? The Governor’s number one priority is economic opportunity and jobs. Our budget must provide him with the tools and funds to do this work by investing in the Port of Virginia, and by providing incentives for advanced manufacturing, bioscience, and university research. We also need to give Virginians a raise by increasing the minimum wage to at least $10.90 per hour, which is the equivalent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, of the minimum wage in 1968. The minimum wage has not been raised since 2007. Despite assertions by some business groups, a recent study concludes that a modest increase in the minimum wage has “little or no effect…on job growth.” I would prefer the federal government raise it, but if they will not, Virginia should.
- Will we change state tax incentives and preferences that have outlived their usefulness? The economy and job creation needs to be a key priority for us. The Governor has been working hard to bring new economic activity to the Commonwealth and invest monies strategically to diversify our economy. We cannot afford to concentrate our resources on anything but programs that are bringing the greatest return. This year, I will offer a bill that repeals two coal tax credits and redirects these monies to higher education. This will provide approximately $90 million per year. The credits were created years ago to encourage coal and utility companies to create jobs. A JLARC report issued several years ago indicated that the coal tax credits no longer work. I believe that instead of sending these breaks to coal and utility companies, we should invest in creating jobs for the future.
- What will happen to Medicaid expansion? The House Republican Caucus has blocked Medicaid expansion, with the result that we continue to lose between $4 million and $5 million per day in our tax dollars that flow to Washington and do not come back to Virginia. Bringing those dollars back would help provide insurance to 400,000 Virginians who do not now qualify, create 30,000 new jobs, and bolster our hospitals which are facing serious federal funding cuts. The failure to expand Medicaid makes little economic sense and hurts a number of our citizens, a view held by most of our hospitals and by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
- Will there be real ethics reform? An ethics bill will be passed this session, but how strong will it be? I support many prohibitions against gifts and trips for legislators, campaign financing reform, and the creation of an independent ethics commission with real teeth. I will be carrying a Governor’s bill that will prevent legislators from raising campaign funds during “special sessions” (we have been in special session since March 2014), and another that will discourage legislators from using their office to bolster their VRS retirement by taking state jobs after they end their service with the legislature.
- Will the legislature attack issues of sexual assault on campuses? The Governor has appointed a task force on sexual assault on college campuses and many of us are extremely concerned about the reporting of sexual violence, especially in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article about UVA as well the Hannah Graham case. I will introduce several bills on these issues. One will require that DNA samples be taken from anyone who has been convicted of a serious misdemeanor charge, much like we do presently with fingerprinting. One must always be careful about speculating, but it is quite possible that had this law been in effect last fall, the alleged perpetrator of the Hannah Graham murder might never have met her that night. A second bill will require colleges that expel persons for sexual assault make a designation on their transcript to that effect. Finally, I am working with colleges and university personnel to introduce a bill that will require certain university personnel to report sexual assault to law enforcement. My approach will balance the individual rights of victims with the need to protect the community from repeat offenders.
- What will happen with redistricting? For years, I have supported a nonpartisan redistricting commission. The Republicans in the House have killed those bills whenever they have been introduced. This year may be different. A recent court case found that General Assembly’s redistricting of Congressional districts was unconstitutional and a lawsuit was filed last week that challenges the constitutionality of the House of Delegates’ districts. This lawsuit will be carefully watched because it creates the possibility that the lines for all 100 House districts will have to be redrawn in the next several months. That could dramatically change the competitiveness of many districts.
- Will there be an effort to “tax the sun”? There may be efforts to attack the EPA and undermine the promotion of renewables. A number of us will push to support greater use of wind and solar power, including resisting the imposition of a “stand-by charge” on people who use solar power sufficient to generate electricity that they can sell back to the grid. I have a bill that will establish a registry by which solar credits may be bought and sold as a way to encourage greater use of solar energy. I will also be supporting a Governor’s bill that will try to address some of the impacts of climate change on sea level rise, especially in the Tidewater area.
While the session is only 46 days, it will be extremely busy. The Governor has an aggressive agenda and there is a lot that can be accomplished. You can follow the action on various bills by visiting the General Assembly website. You will also find the link to watch Session live on that website, as well as daily on Facebook. You can always contact us at during Session by writing us at P.O. Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218, by calling us at 804-698-1057, or by email at email@example.com.
As always, I want to hear your comments and suggestions on matters before the General Assembly, and encourage you to contact me with your opinion. It is an honor serving you in the General Assembly.