The 2015 General Assembly session is scheduled to adjourn on February 28, 2015. The revised budget is just about done and will likely include some raises for teachers and state employees. It is also likely to include some additional monies for higher education. These are important advances, though I would like to see additional funding for education.
The budget does not go far enough in a number of other ways, and still does not provide for the expansion of Medicaid, which could bring back hundreds of millions of our taxpayer dollars to help Virginians secure health insurance, create jobs, and strengthen our hospital systems.
A number of the major initiatives that I have worked on look likely to pass in some form. The bill to expand the DNA database, which was proposed in response to the Hannah Graham murder, has now passed the Senate in a form slightly modified from the one that was passed by the House. This means that there will be a conference committee composed of Senate and House members to reconcile the two bills for final passage. The same is true with the campus sexual assault reporting bill. I hope to be involved in the final discussions on these bills and expect them to be passed and signed by the Governor.
In the energy arena, one of the major debates focused on the bill proposed by Dominion Virginia Power to freeze electric utility rates for the next five years. This is drawing considerable controversy in the press, and much of the focus has been on the initial form of the bill, which was extremely detrimental to consumers and those of us who support greater investment in renewable energy. The bill that passed, however, is substantially different than the one that was proposed. In fact, the amended bill was not opposed by the Sierra Club, nor the League of Conservation Voters. It includes a requirement that Dominion undertake a weatherization program for low-income persons, and unprecedented initiatives to expand solar and other renewables. The bill provides some comfort to consumers as it will freeze the “base rates” of the utility for the next five years. Your utility bill may or may not change, however, as your bill also reflects the cost of fuel. If natural gas continues to decline, that decrease in price will be passed on to the consumer in the form of lower bills. If there is a spike in natural gas or other fuel sources, your bill will likely rise. But the base rate, which is determined by the cost of other operations of the utility, such as maintaining its infrastructure and repairs and replacements generated by weather events and natural disasters, will be borne solely by the utility. In the event that Dominion “over earns” after the five year period, they will have to provide a credit to consumers, or an actual reduction in base rates.
My efforts to reform the coal tax credits have not yet succeeded. Republicans in the House and Senate have not yet been convinced of the economic arguments opposing the massive taxpayer subsidies provided to the coal and utility companies. This has amounted to approximately $600 million over the last twenty years for an industry that has lost three quarters of its workforce during this period and is now mining substantially less coal. Unfortunately, some people are so “locked in” to the so called “war on coal” argument, and are willing to allow their constituents to further subsidize an industry that is failing. The better approach is to take the money and invest it in emerging industries in southwest Virginia that will create better jobs in the long run. We will continue to fight for reform.
Several of my other bills will soon pass both bodies and go to the Governor. Included in these is my bill to give property owners more flexibility in how they deal with the city’s zoning ordinance for sidewalk construction (HB 2051), a bill to eliminate paperwork for small businesses as they file their personal property tax documents with their localities (HB 2098), and a bill requiring universities to provide more information about their sponsored research programs and the degree to which these initiatives are creating more commercial activity in the Commonwealth (HB 1959).
And, for your viewing pleasure, you may be interested in a floor speech I gave this week on “millennials” and how Democrats are responding to their concerns in Richmond. You can see it here.
I am looking forward to returning to Charlottesville to spend more time with my family, resume my law practice, and serve my constituents from my local office. It is a pleasure serving you in Richmond.