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.”