The 2019 General Assembly adjourned sine die this morning at 11:52 a.m.
It was certainly one for the history books. This quote from yesterday's
about sums it up: "With national attention focused on one embarrassing revelation after another, the legislature kept working, managing bipartisan agreement on a major plan to provide income tax relief for residents and cutting a similar deal on adding money for teacher salaries, at-risk students and other priorities."
The General Assembly must balance the budget each year in accordance with the Virginia Constitution. Since Virginia's biennial budget was adopted last year, this year we focused on amendments. Final action on the budget is a single up or down vote - which means that there are things to love and hate. On the whole, however, this was a good budget that addressed some pressing issues. I voted yes along with the vast majority of my colleagues. A few highlights:
- Cash reserves were increased by $565.5M to $1.45B by the end of the biennium. This equates to ~6.7% of general fund revenues. The long-term goal is at least 8%. These reserves are critical to our AAA bond rating and ensuring that we are able to weather economic downturns.
- $85.7M in net new funding for K-12 education. Over the biennium, Fairfax County Public Schools will see an increase in basic state aid of ~$7M.
- The biennial budget already included an increase in teacher salaries by 3%. The amendments increase this to 5% and is part of our effort to address Virginia's growing teacher shortage.
- $12.2M to increase the counselor-to-student ratio in public schools and $5.7M for other school safety recommendations of the Select Committee on School Safety.
- $57.5M in additional funding for in-state undergraduate affordability. Higher education took the greatest budget hit during the last recession - which has led to skyrocketing tuition. In turn, this has led to an untenable situation as students and families take on more debt. By accepting this funding, institutions of higher education must maintain tuition at FY2019 levels. The budget also includes $15.5 in new in-state undergraduate financial aid.
- $3M for the Housing Trust Fund - raising the total for the biennium to $14M. This fund is used for affordable housing and homelessness prevention efforts.
- $10M for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which is used to help urban areas meet Chesapeake Bay restoration requirements.
- $5M for additional Safety Service Patrols. Sixteen percent of all interstate highway delays are caused by incidents. This funding will help to get them cleared faster.
There are many, many other items in the budget - with both winners and losers when it comes to funding. If you have a particular interest area, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.
Transportation - Lost Opportunity
For those of you who completed my constituent survey, you know that I asked a question about using tolls to make safety and congestion relief improvements to I-81. The initial proposal came from legislators along that corridor. While there is certainly a need, it did not come as a shock to me that there was not a great deal of excitement about the prospect of even more tolls in Virginia.
And that leads me to what I think is this session's greatest lost opportunity. There is, actually, another way to generate revenue for I-81. Virginia's $0.237 truck diesel tax rate is the lowest of all states along the I-81 corridor. At the same time, Virginia's truck registration fee is also the lowest in the corridor ($9.58 per 1,000 pounds in Virginia compared to an average of $17.83). These taxes and fees are only paid for by commercial vehicles. Simply increasing them to the average would generate ~$105M annually that could be bonded for improvements to I-81. The plan would also have resulted in $23.4M per year for transportation projects here in Northern Virginia!
Trucks are a vital part of our economy. However, they should also pay their fair share. According to analysis by our Secretary of Transportation, while trucks are estimated to account for 29% of the impacts on Virginia's roads - they currently contribute only 10.2% of state transportation taxes. Sadly, the bill went sideways at the last minute.
Yesterday was a big day for redistricting reform! After years of advocating for an end to partisan gerrymandering, we finally got to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that will make meaningful changes (SJ306).
The measure establishes the Virginia Redistricting Commission, to be comprised of 16 members tasked with establishing legislative districts every ten years. The membership would consist of eight legislative members (with equal representation from the two major parties) and eight citizen members. The citizen members would be selected by a committee of five retired Virginia judges. Any redistricting plan must have the vote of at least six of the eight legislative members and six of the eight citizen members. Should the commission fail to act, or the General Assembly fail to adopt the plan recommended by the commission, then districts would be drawn by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Voltaire said "
Le meglio è l'inimico del bene"
or "Perfect is the enemy of good." That aptly describes my yes vote on this measure. I would have preferred a truly independent redistricting commission, but this is a good approach. To become part of the Virginia Constitution, the resolution must pass in identical form next year, and then go to the voters for ratification in November 2020.
The General Assembly took action on many other pieces of legislation. For instance, for the first time, Virginia will allow no-excuse absentee voting in person beginning on the second Saturday immediately preceding an election (SB1026). We also passed a series of bills designed to help reduce evictions in Virginia after a study indicated that several of our cities have among the highest eviction rates in the nation. Sadly, legislation requiring hands-free technology for personal communications devices while driving faltered right before the finish line (HB1811). While the original bill would have required hands-free, the conference committee report only made minor tweaks to our existing texting and driving law and was rejected.
This year, I introduced 15 bills - 11 of which are now on their way to the Governor. These include measures to make our communities more walkable (HB1913), increase knowledge about proper drug disposal (HB1743), and promote private investment in electric vehicle infrastructure (HB1934). I also carried several bills on behalf of the Virginia Housing Commission dealing with home-based child care and HOA capital reserve studies.
Thank you to everyone who visited, wrote, or called me this session. Thank you as well to everyone who completed my 2019 Constituent Survey. Click here to see the results.
I am proud to represent such an engaged community. See you back home in Fairfax!