The Senate and the House of Delegates released and approved their respective versions of Virginia’s two-year budget this week. Under Virginia’s Constitution, approving the budget is the General Assembly’s first and most important responsibility.
Having just completed the process that is known as “crossover,” where the final bills are passed by each chamber and are now considered and debated again by the opposite chamber, I am pleased to announced that 19 bills that I have authored have passed the Senate and are currently being considered by the House of Delegates for final passage.
Virginia enacts a two-year budget (what is referred to as a “biennial budget”), approving a spending plan in even years. That is why General Assembly sessions last 60 days in even-numbered years, but only 46 days in odd-numbered ones.
This year, the budget approved by the Senate is $3 billion less than what Governor McAuliffe proposed. There are no new taxes or tax rate increases in the plan. And, the Senate budget does not adopt ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion scheme.
By prioritizing core services, the Senate plan directs more funding to our public schools. It also pays for the state’s share of funding for a 2% teacher pay raise that would go into effect this year, as well as raising the pay of our state employees who work so hard for the benefit of the Commonwealth. For example, in order to help sheriffs and the State Police retain experienced law enforcement professionals, the Senate budget plan includes funds to address salary compression. The Senate plan also funds a 2% pay raise for state employees.
To ensure Virginia remains competitive in attracting new businesses and growing existing ones, the Senate budget prioritizes economic growth, workforce development, and job creation. GO Virginia, the initiative to encourage and enhance cooperation between business, education, and government entities to grow our economy, would receive nearly $39 million in funding. New workforce development initiatives received $23 million, including a new program providing tuition assistance to students seeking credentialed or certified education in high-demand fields outside of the traditional college structure.
Now that the House and Senate have approved their respective budget proposals, differences between the two plans have to be ironed out. That will be accomplished over the next two weeks.
One of the more important budget matters that I drafted and have successfully fought for inclusion in the state budget is the VDOT study of Interstate 73 and alternative routes utilizing State Route 220. This study is required in order to begin the final federal permitting process that will allow I-73 to be constructed in the near future.
Additionally, four other budget amendments were included in the Senate budget (SB 30) funding bills that I have proposed that will help with education, rural health care, and will help localities to attract new business to Southside and Southwest Virginia. They are:
• SB 246 grants for science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) competition teams at qualified schools: $300,000 to help establish a grant program administered by the Board of Education beginning in 2017 to establish STEM programs and robotics competition teams at qualified public schools in the rural and economically underserved areas such as ours. This grant money will help establish STEM labs in our public schools, as well as fund robotics team competitions for our students, which will prepare them for the new tech economy.
• SB 369 nurse practitioners; practicing outside of a patient care team: $500,000 to implement a pilot program for nurse practitioners to practice in the medically underserved areas of the Commonwealth and practice under a physician team through the utilization of telemedicine. This will increase access for citizens in rural and underprivileged areas to quality health care at affordable prices.
In 2015, I authored and had passed into law two bills, SB 717 and SB 809, which were included in the new approved Senate budget:
• SB 717 Board of Health; medical school scholarships. The student loan repayment plan is funded with $300,000 to encourage medical professionals to serve in medically underserved areas of the Commonwealth such as our region, by paying off their med school debt if they agree to practice in rural Virginia. Moreover, this funding will go a long way to assist our local hospitals to recruit and retain good doctors for Southwest and Southside Virginia.
• SB 809, which directed the Department of Housing and Community Development to develop a program for the certification of local industrial parks. The Virginia Business Ready sites pilot program is funded $2,000,000 to support the development of 100 plus acres of industrial sites that we have in our localities, and especially focusing on the infrastructure development and marketing of those industrial sites as being “shovel ready” for particular industries that will bring in major employers to our area.
We had several visitors stop by our offices this week, including Gerald Williams, Betty Moorma, Penny Pauliks, Victor Williams Jr., and Abigail Vass, all of Patrick County.
If you are visiting Virginia’s historic Capitol between now and March 12, remember to stop by our offices in Room 313 of the General Assembly Building. If you’d like me to know your thoughts on issues under consideration by this year’s General Assembly, send an e-mail to District20@senate.virginia.gov or a letter to Senate of Virginia, PO Box 396, Richmond VA 23218-0396. You can also call us at 804.698.7520.
I’ll be back next week with more news from Richmond. Until then, have a great week.