The 2016, 60-day session of the Virginia General Assembly gavels in on Jan. 13.
The legislature will craft a two-year budget, which will be Governor McAuliffe's first chance to put his stamp on the state's finances. While Virginia’s economy lags behind the national average, revenue is up more than average for the first time since I was elected in 2009 and there are many unmet needs worthy of funding.
Supporting Our Schools and Colleges
Virginia is currently funding secondary education on a per pupil, inflation-adjusted basis at levels below funding in 2007. The Governor has requested a billion dollar increase, new teacher positions, teacher pay raises and full funding for “Cost to Compete,” a program that supplements salaries for Northern Virginia school employees.
We are likely to vote on a state constitutional amendment granting the State Board of Education authority to establish charter schools instead of locally-elected school boards. Bills to opening high school athletics to home-schooled children will be at issue again.
Higher education is also starved. Virginia currently funds higher education at 2006 levels and only funds one-third of actual in-state student cost. Tuition rates have risen over 30 percent in the last four years, financial aid demand has skyrocketed and the average Virginia college graduate now has an average of $20,000 in student loan debt. We must make higher education a higher priority.
Governor McAuliffe has proposed a $2.4 billion bond package for new higher education facilities focused on research and workforce development. The package also includes $250 million in modernizations at the Port of Virginia.
A partisan gulf remains on health care, in the shadow of a near shutdown of the government two years ago because the majority refused to accept $2 billion per year in federal Medicaid funds. Virginia still has over 6,000 families waiting for services for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults also called the ID/DD waiver program. If Virginia does not make significant progress on this backlog, we will be subject to court sanctions.
On transportation, we must correct an oversight in our 2013 transportation legislation and place a floor on our regional transportation gas tax dedicated to transit. Due to declining gas prices, millions of dollars have been lost. This shortfall means that Metro maintenance funding is at risk, Prince William County bus service could be cut by 40 percent and Stafford County may drop road-widening projects. The legislature will also debate tolls on I-66 and changes to fine collection practices in HOT lanes.
We will consider many car title lending bills to address the ever-expanding scourge on Route 1. We have targeted several loopholes and will try to restrict the number of lenders in an area and prohibit locating lenders near casinos or military bases.
We are likely to see bills raising contentious social issues, such as making it easier to obtain firearms and concealed weapons permits along with bills to restrict firearm purchases.
Legislation has already been introduced to reauthorize the Confederate flag on vehicle license plates. I also expect to see legislation to allow businesses to refuse business to LGBT families, to limit school boards' ability to accommodate LGBT students, to restricting refugee resettlement and bills to limit reproductive choice.
On energy, the solar industry will make a major push to put Virginia’s energy laws on an equal footing with neighboring states so that Virginia’s solar industry can operate on an equal playing field. We will address coal ash dumps at power plants. Southwest Virginia legislators have already introduced legislation to thwart President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Finally, Virginia still has over 20 open judge positions that need funding. Fairfax County has two vacancies and Prince William County is short one. These vacancies impact Northern Virginians’ ability to have important legal matters heard, such as child support, child custody, personal injuries or contract disputes. And filling a vacant state Supreme Court position is still in dispute with the majority still vowing to remove the first judge from Fairfax County to sit on an appellate court in over 20 years.
Next week, I will focus on my legislative agenda. I look forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.