Opinion: Commentary: Maintaining Focus in Richmond

Opinion: Commentary: Maintaining Focus in Richmond

As controversies seem to arise with each news cycle, the General Assembly is continuing its work, convening floor sessions and committees with its customary unflinchingly-courteous efficiency. Despite the emotional toll of the last two weeks, our state government must maintain the trust of our diverse constituencies by coming together to pass a budget and complete the work we were sent here to do.

Thirteen of my bills have made it through the Senate to the House of Delegates. My bills to ban discrimination in housing and public employment against LGBT Virginians faces tough opposition in the House. I am optimistic about my bill to establish “municipal net-metering” pilot programs, enabling localities to offset the cost of electricity used by energy-intensive buildings with power generated by renewable sources at another city- or county-owned location. Another bill would ensure independent oversight of $1 billion in energy efficiency funding.

Despite overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, my legislation to end the modern-day debtors’ prison caused by the practice of suspending driver's licenses for non-driving (often drug-related) offenses was defeated in subcommittee on a party-line vote. My bill to ban all governmental use of software prohibited by the Department of Homeland Security passed unanimously, as did my bill to lower employment barriers for community college professors seeking to teach career and technical education/dual enrollment classes in high schools. This legislation would strengthen our employment pipeline for students who do not have access to in-demand courses in fields such as cybersecurity, emergency medical technician (EMT), veterinary science, and culinary arts.

In addition to debating legislation, we have begun considering amendments to the biennial budget. Major changes to the federal tax code and an infusion of revenue due to the Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. that will bring in additional out of state internet sales tax revenue complicated both the “caboose” budget and tax conformity — normally perfunctory procedural matters that include addressing the difference between projected and actual revenue, and aligning Virginia’s tax code with the federal tax code.

A compromise plan was adopted that returned money to taxpayers through a mid-October refund of $110 per person and funding was retained for several key priorities. For the first time since 2005, the plan also included conformity legislation that raises the standard deduction by 50 percent to $4,500 for individuals and $9,000 for couples. When the Governor signs this legislation, the state will be able to begin preparing tax software to process returns.

I voted in favor of the Senate budget that includes important education priorities, including: increasing teacher pay by 5 percent, replacing federal funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative grant, and providing $70 million in school construction loans to help rebuild older derelict facilities. Several key floor amendments, proposed by Senate Democrats, included increased funding for school counselors, mental health supportive housing, water quality improvement, and staff to decrease evictions in the state.

I passed a floor amendment to increase funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund (VHTF) by $1.5 million per year. The VHTF provides “gap funding” to help bring affordable housing projects online. The funds invested will help finance an additional $78 million in affordable housing development over the biennium. Much work remains to be done to invest more in affordable housing, but I was proud that the Senate budget takes a step in the right direction.

With so much at stake, we cannot afford to lose focus.

It is my continued honor to serve the 30th district.