The fifth week of the 2017 Legislative Session has come to a close! We have officially crossed over, when all bills that have made it through their house of origin have crossed over to the other body to be heard. The House sent 586 bills to the Senate and we sent 468 to the House. Yesterday, both the House and Senate dedicated time addressing the budget. The House and Senate versions of amendments to the 2016-2018 budget must be merged into a single bill on which both sides can reach agreement.
Since we are considering amendments to an existing budget, the process should go smoothly. But, the budget bill is the largest single piece of legislation considered in each session. That means there are a lot of details on which agreement must be reached.
The Senate’s proposed budget amendments focused on core services and critical needs. Despite having to close a $1.2 billion revenue shortfall, the plan avoids across-the-board reductions for our public schools. It significantly increases funding for mental health initiatives and preserves safety net programs.
One area the plan addresses – and set as a priority – was compensation for our State Police. Inadequate compensation has resulted in the Virginia State Police having difficulty recruiting and retaining new officers. The Senate plan raises starting salary for State Police from $36,207 to $43,000, providing across-the-board increases for these critical law enforcement professionals. The plan also includes providing the state’s share for a 2% salary increase for our public school teachers. I had pushed hard for both the state police and teacher raises this year, and was prepared to vote against the budget if these raises were not included. Classified state employees (which legislators are not) will receive a 3% pay increase, too.
The Senate plan addressed compensation very differently than the plan announced by Governor McAuliffe in his State of the Commonwealth Address. By prioritizing spending and finding savings, we were able to replace the Governor’s proposed bonuses with actual salary increases.
Although, ultimately, both Democrats and Republicans voted in favor of the final budget product, there were other fee increases that I personally voted against that were contained within the budget amendments: The Jamestown-Yorktown Commemoration allocation of $5 million; additional citizen recordation fees within the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation; the budget of $40 million for the Revenue Cash Reserve; and a $100 assessment by the Dept. of Housing and Community Development for any person offering a short-term rental.
I have been opposed to the GO Virginia initiative, as I do not believe the government should be in the business of picking winners and losers. This is a "pro-business" initiative which I have not supported because it creates a board with unelected members to determine where our economic development funds should be allocated. While I support small business, I do not support the GO Virginia economic development plan. Therefore, I voted against those amendments.
I have also signed on to SB 1398 as co-patron, which addresses the coal ash pond closures in Chesterfield and around the state. This bill passed the Senate with bi-partisan support and is waiting action in the House subcommittee on Agriculture. I have been working hard on this issue since last session, often bringing both environmental advocates and Dominion to the table together. I'm very encouraged by the progress that has been made, but this bill would require additional assessments to ensure environmental safety throughout this process of coal ash pond closure. This bill would help us determine what the costs would be for the rate payers if the coal is excavated and relocated, which has been a large concern of mine. This bill also requires a public comment period as part of the process.
There have been so many interesting and sometimes contentious bills that we've heard in committee and on the floor. One such bill was SB 795, which I co-patroned with Sen. Glen Sturtevant, which would require localities and school divisions to publish their register of funds online. As a public entity which is funded by the state and federal governments, this measure is a positive step toward greater transparency. This bill passed the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in House Counties, Cities, and Towns.
A heavily debated bill was Sen. Norment's SJ 223, which dealt with felon rights restoration. This bill would allow for automatic renewal of voting rights for non-violent felons who have completed their sentences, while maintaining the individual, case-by-case review by the Governor for violent felons. I supported this bill.
We also have been hearing a lot about Del. Landes' bill HB 2191, which has crossed over to the Senate. This bill requires each school board to create procedures for handling controversial instructional materials, if they do not already have them. This would include procedures for notifying the parents of students when sexually explicit content is on the syllabus for the year, and provide alternatives for those who have objections to such content for their own child. The bill defines "sexually explicit content" as content that involves any criminal sexual assault defined and punishable as a felony. This bill will be heard by the Senate Education and Health Committee. I support this bill.
I invite you to come to view the Senate proceedings in person, as individuals or with a group. If you let my office know ahead of time, I'd be happy to recognize you from the Senate floor. Please contact my office at email@example.com or 804-698-7511 to make arrangements for your visit.
I look forward to hearing from you in these final weeks of session.