The best way I can describe the 2017 session of the General Assembly is to call it a mixed bag. Some good work was done for sure, but if not for the governor’s veto pen, it would have been marred by some backward legislation. Most disappointing are the missed opportunities that were not addressed in the 46-day short session.
Although budget matters are supposed to be dealt with only in the long, even-year session, there are budget adjustments that creep into the short session as well. The good news is that the Assembly passed amendments to the biennium budget to bring it back into balance from a $1.2 billion shortfall in revenue. There were reductions, but the governor proposed and the Assembly agreed to keeping 3 percent salary increases for state employees who have been without a raise for many years. Funds were provided for the state share of a 2 percent raise for teachers. Additional funds were provided to deal with the critical needs in mental health care.
Four bills were passed to deal with the opioid epidemic. They established needle exchange programs, increased access to the overdose drug naloxone, increased services to infants exposed to opioids in utero, and strengthened opioid prescription policies. Five million dollars was appropriated for permanent supportive housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless because of mental illness. A bill to require insurance companies to cover a 12-month supply of prescription birth control also passed.
Of the bills I opposed, most will be vetoed by the governor. Not only did a committee in the House defeat my bill to require universal background checks for gun purchases, but it passed several bills to make access to guns easier. The Republicans do not have the supermajority that is needed to overturn the governor’s veto of these bills. Likewise, the governor is expected to veto a bill that would prevent localities from becoming “sanctuary” zones. He has already vetoed a bill that would have denied funding to Planned Parenthood, and the House was not able to override his veto.
Despite public support for establishing an independent system to draw legislative boundary lines, my bill and several others with that goal were defeated in a House committee. Bills that passed the Senate on this issue were defeated in the same House committee. The public support for legislation that would prevent legislators from being able to pick their own voters was as strong as I have seen on an issue in recent years.
Beware that a new law passed that creates a fine of $100 for failing to drive on the right side of the road. The intent of this new law is to prevent slow drivers from driving in the left lane. Legislation that would have created a bill of rights for college student loan borrowers did not pass.
Although the “short sessions” of the General Assembly held on the odd-numbered years are about two weeks less in length than the regular session in the even-numbered years because they do not consider a biennium budget, the fact is that the budget is adjusted at every session of the General Assembly.
Revenue projections that are made over a couple of years’ time frame almost always need to be adjusted. Revenues come over or under projections, necessitating corresponding changes to the budget. Recession-level declines like that in 2008 required severe budget reductions. The economic recovery has been slower than in the past, resulting in some tweaking being needed every year. The Commonwealth operates on a balanced budget with funds going into a rainy day fund when economic growth is strong, and the fund being used to smooth out declines from loss of revenue.
The House and Senate approved different versions of a revised budget for the next fiscal year without prolonged debate, which has been a part of these deliberations for many years. The governor presented a revised budget that brought the next year into balance and funded some high-priority items, upon which there was bipartisan agreement. Differences do remain that will be ironed out by a conference committee over the remaining weeks of the session.
Highlights of the budget include important new funding for mental health services. Although the needs in mental health have been recognized for a long time, it took advocates many years and the suicide of a senator’s son to finally get agreement on funding critically needed services. An important aspect of the new services will be to get mentally ill persons out of jails, where they have found themselves in recent years when they acted out and there was no other place for them to go.
State employees will finally be getting a raise after many years of waiting. The situation has become increasingly desperate with a high turnover rate. Teachers who are employed by local school boards will not be getting a direct appropriation for a raise from the state, but hopefully the modest increase to localities can be used in part to fund teacher pay raises that are likewise long overdue.
Although the action in the short session on the budget will get us through the next fiscal year, there are long-term structural issues that remain — particularly in funding education. While the division between state and local funding had historically been 60 to 40 percent, the actual division in recent years has been closer to 40 percent state and 60 percent local. The result has been that increasing costs have fallen on local property taxpayers.
Virginians like to brag about their low per capita state taxes at $2,275, 36th-lowest among the states. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that per capita local taxes in Virginia are $1,928, or 15th-highest among the states. We are going to balance the budget for the short run this session, but we need to do a lot more work about more fairly balancing the budget for the long term.
High Winds Cause Power Outages — Winds up to 60 mph have been striking the area, and a high-wind warning from the National Weather Service remains in effect until 6 p.m. tonight. More than 13,000 customers are reported without power this morning in Northern Virginia, including a handful in Reston. [Dominion Power]
‘Adopt a Hydrant’ Program Underway — Fairfax County Fire and Rescue is asking residents and business owners to maintain the areas around fire hydrants. Hydrants must be free of snow and ice in the winter, and free of weeds, leaves and shrubbery in warmer weather. [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue]
Teachers Likely to See More in Paychecks — The Virginia General Assembly is entering the final two weeks of its session, and it looks like teachers will get raises. The Senate budget plan provides raises for teachers, while the House would give schools more unrestricted money that could be used for raises. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has also proposed a 1.5 percent bonus for teachers and state workers. [WTOP]
Photo of sunrise over Reston this morning via Twitter user @JGS3584
The 2017 Virginia General Assembly convenes today at noon in Richmond, but 11th-hour elections had some legislators up late last night.
Two Virginia Senate seats were up for vote in a special election Tuesday, along with one House seat. Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) of Reston had a close eye on the races in her chamber, as a Democratic sweep would have put her in position to take the reins of the Finance Committee.
In the 9th District, representing the Richmond area, Democratic candidate Jennifer McClellan took an easy victory over a third-party opponent. But in the 22nd District, representing the Lynchburg area, Republican Mark Peake won by a large margin over Democratic candidate Ryant Washington. Both seats had been vacated by former state senators who were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The results keep the Republicans in a 21-19 advantage in the Senate. A 20-20 split would have effectively given control to the Democratic Party, as the lieutenant governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, has tiebreaker control.
“It is disappointing but not at all surprising that the Republican won in an overwhelmingly Republican district,” Howell told Reston Now when asked for comment on the 22nd District result. “Sadly, we lost an opportunity to bring our Democratic values to the state Senate.”
Howell says she is concerned about cuts to education, services for the disabled, drug treatment programs and more that may come as the state faces a $1.5 billion budget shortfall that must be made up during the 46-day session.
“I will continue to fight for funding our Northern Virginia priorities in the Finance Committee,” she said.
Each year, the school board pinpoints a number of important education issues it plans to advocate for in regards to state legislation. For 2017, officials said that they are honing in on a few key issues that they want to focus on when advocating for Fairfax County families with school-age children.
When it comes to funding, school board members said they would like Virginia to allocate previously promised money for teacher salary increases — funding that was taken away earlier this year due to state budget shortfalls.
“Reinstating state funding for teacher salary increases would bring an additional $12 million over the biennium in state funds back to Fairfax,” said school board member Ryan McElveen, who serves as the county’s state legislative liaison.
One of the larger positions the school board plans to take in 2017 is that local school boards should receive more flexibility and autonomy when it comes to designing instructional programs, including how many tests students have to take each year.
School board members said they plan to advocate for what they call “multiple paths to graduation.” Specifically, they said they would like to provide students with more opportunities “to explore their career interests” in preparation for secondary education.
School board members also said they plan to advocate for fewer state-mandated tests and evaluations required of students, to ensure “a balanced assessment system that helps to inform instruction.”
The Fairfax County School Board’s full report on its 2017 legislative priorities is here.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston), calls the state’s budget outlook “bleak” while praising Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget, which closes the projected shortfall through a series of tax changes and spending cuts.
However, Howell and other area Democrats say the budget doesn’t go far enough in improving the state’s K-12 education system.
“Fortunately, the Governor’s budget closes the budget gap. His budget is balanced,” Howell said in a newsletter to her constituents. “What we do not have, however, is any real ability to make investments in public education, higher education, human services, or workforce development.
“Direct aid to public education has been spared additional state cuts,” she continued. “However, unless we have a sudden, unexpected upswing in our economy, we will have to jettison a proposed and deserved salary increase. For context, in terms of per pupil general funds for public education, by FY 2016 we will be just back to FY 2008 levels on a statewide basis.”
Over the summer, McAuliffe announced Virginia was projected to have a $2.4 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Much of that deficit, Howell said at a recent Arlington Democrats meeting, can be traced back to cuts from the federal budget sequestration and the layoffs at government contractors it prompted.
Additional revenue growth has since reduced the deficit, and cuts to the state prison system and elsewhere have saved millions. Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) says the closing of tax loopholes for some corporations — most notably coal producers — are necessary to even preserve the current level of education funding.
“There are a lot of companies in Virginia that don’t pay any taxes,” Hope told ARLnow.com. “We’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars that Virginia gives out every year to companies for job creation, and research is coming out that that’s not happening today. We need to take a hard look at what those tax credits are, and if they’re not doing what the intended purposes are, we need to pull it back.”
Hope said a state yacht tax credit should also be stripped — “I can’t look my voters in the eye if I vote for a budget” that includes that tax credit, he said — but said that the budget should become more ambitious in terms of education spending. Funding K-12 education millions of dollars less than before the recession, without accounting for inflation, isn’t enough, he said.
“There’s no reason why spending shouldn’t go in the opposite direction,” he said. “We are out of the recession now, it’s time to fill those holes back up.”
Although some form of a balanced budget is expected to pass — which may include cuts to education, according to Hope, if the Republican-controlled General Assembly balks at the loophole cuts — Howell said the realities of the budget situation don’t figure to change anytime soon, especially after the sequester’s cuts to federal defense spending.
“Growth has halted or declined in the good-paying ($77k+/year) jobs in the ‘business and professional services’ categories. Instead, we are seeing more growth in lower-paying jobs, such as health, leisure and hospitality ($45k/year on average),” Howell wrote. “Unfortunately, no one believes this situation is a temporary one.”