My final vote of the session was the passage of the budget. This year the General Assembly voted to invest a tremendous amount of the State’s excess revenue in education. The final budget included a 5 percent increase in teacher salaries, $12 million in funding for school mental health counselors, and nearly $25 million to support the education of students living at the lowest income levels (known as the at-risk add on). We also voted to fund early education programs for lower-income youth and incentivize institutions of higher learning to freeze tuition rates. Because of this decision, Virginia Tech is considering freezing tuition for the first time in decades. Additionally, the budget sent to the Governor for final approval invests in the tech-talent pipeline with nearly $17 million to expand computer science degrees and $15.5 million to support need-based financial aid. As Northern Virginia continues to grow into one of the most popular tech destinations on the east coast, we need to create opportunity for our own students to be the beneficiaries of new, high-paying jobs in this field. We can do this by bolstering early education and increasing access to cutting-edge programs from a young age for all students.
Our final budget also grows investment in affordable housing and increases Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits by 5 percent. I believe the focus of this budget on working class Virginians will provides a strong framework for future, bolder budgets that will build on this structure.
I am thankful for the hard work of Alexandria’s elected officials and staff which resulted in the budget including $25 million in state funding for the city’s combined sewer overflow system remediation. This will go a long way in relieving the pressure on ratepayers and city taxpayers of paying for this project, which will cost an estimated $375 to $555 million to complete.
With the budget complete, my team and I returned to Northern Virginia after seven long weeks in Richmond. We are having a hard time adjusting to “normal” life. The transition from the all-consuming task of legislating to constituent service and meeting with community groups is abrupt. While our daily responsibilities have changed, there’s still more than enough work to go around.
I have begun reviewing my legislation from this year that failed to advance. It’s tempting to decide that with a Democratic majority most of my bills would have made it through the General Assembly easily, and to focus all my efforts on this year’s political races. But hoping for a positive political outcome won’t necessarily get results. To pass meaningful legislation it’s critical to do the hard work of self-assessing, finding faults in legislation, and trying again.
Towards session’s end we held a meeting of the General Assembly Gun Violence Prevention Caucus, which I co-chair with Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-McLean). Our caucus is dedicated to passing tenable and innovative solutions to ending the ever-present threat of gun violence that hangs heavy over our state. We have already begun to strategize for next year’s session.
I will continue working with advocates and stakeholders involved in supporting victims of domestic violence to find a legislative fix for how our state defines family and household abuse. Our current law does not include those in dating relationships in the domestic violence statute, leaving many victims without appropriate recourse or protection if they are abused. A bill I carried this year to add those in dating relationships to our current definition surprisingly died in committee. This was, in part, due to the overly complex and muddled way Virginia law handles family and domestic abuse, custody, and protective orders. I will be planning meetings with lawyers, advocates, and police representatives in order to successfully address this issue next year.
During the interim I also represent the Senate on several committees and commissions that recommend policy to the General Assembly and oversee current state programs. These include the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which promotes and allocates funding for regional transportation; the School Readiness Committee, which oversees the professional development and credentialing of early education professionals; and the Commission on Economic Opportunity for Virginians in Aspiring and Diverse Communities.
Additionally, I have begun researching and meeting with stakeholders to vet new legislative ideas for next year. I recommend that constituents reach out to my office in the spring and early summer with legislation to consider or issues to address so that my staff and I have time to do the research and drafting of bills on their behalf.
Despite the upheaval from painful distractions during the legislative session, we were able to adopt a fiscally sound budget and pass compromise legislation on several major issues. As we continue to wrestle with the issues brought to light during this session, and head into the contentious campaign season, we must always remember that our job is to represent the best interests of Virginia.