The Virginia Constitution places the responsibility of approving a budget with the General Assembly and of all the legislation considered during each session, the budget receives the most attention, even in years like this one where we are amending a two-year budget that is already in place.
It is more critical this year as we try to make up a $1.5 billion dollar short fall while we continue to fully fund the core functions of government.
The budget process is complex, but straightforward. The House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committees work separately to come up with their proposals. Delegates approve the House plan and senators approve the Senate plan. Then, any differences between the two proposals are ironed out and a final single spending plan approved by both chambers and sent to the Governor for his signature.
On one important budget issue, things have progressed a little differently this year. Republican legislators in both chambers identified the need to address compensation issues, particularly for law enforcement. We’ve been facing real challenges retaining our state troopers and sheriff’s deputies because their pay has not kept pace with other law enforcement professionals in other states.
This week, Republican leadership in both the House and Senate announced they had already reached an agreement to address the compensation issue. The package includes a substantial, double-digit pay raise for law enforcement and a 3% raise for classified state employees.
Republican legislators have been working together since before the session began to address a problem that was set as a priority. We must do everything we can to fully compensate our law enforcement officers who keep us safe, and put their lives on the line every day for our communities.
The details of the budget proposals will be announced on February 5. I’ll have more complete information on the Senate’s plan right after we approve it later that week and my budget amendment proposals that will help our area.
My own legislation is progressing nicely through the session, as I continue to present and explain my bills to my colleagues. This last week I had two important pieces of my legislation pass various stages in the Senate. One of my bills, SB 798 passed the Senate 40-0 and is now headed to the House of Delegates. My other bill, SB 838, passed the Senate Finance Committee unanimously and should pass out of the Senate in the upcoming week. Both of these bills will help families in our region.
• SB 798: Virginia adjusted gross income; sale of certain crops to craft breweries. In 2012, I sponsored a bill that allowed Virginia Craft Brewery businesses to be treated similar to Virginia wineries, allowing them to sell (and have tastings) to the customer straight from their “bricks and mortar” establishments, without having to comply with the food service requirements of the Virginia ABC law.
When enacted, my bill resulted in an explosion in the growth of the craft brewery industry in Virginia, resulting in a significant increase in small business creation, many new jobs, and an increase in local revenue throughout the Commonwealth.
This year, I have proposed a bill that will provide an income tax free event for our farmers for any income attributable to the sale of crops, hops, barley, wheat, and malt grown by a farmer and sold to a brewery licensed in Virginia. The demand for locally grown ingredients for craft beer is high, but the supply is low as small craft brewery businesses are competing with the larger breweries for quality ingredients for their product.
Currently, Virginia farmers produce less than one acre of hops, an essential agricultural product needed for the creation of craft beer. This bill will hopefully “jump start” a relationship between our farmers and this fast-growing industry.
• SB 838: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Scholarship Pilot Program. With the support of the Community College System, this bill that I drafted directs the Virginia Community College System to establish and administer a three-year Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Scholarship Pilot Program for the purpose of providing access to postsecondary educational opportunities to students living in poverty.
Each year, our state receives money from the federal government in a block grant to administer the TANF program; but also each year, the full amount of the block grant is not utilized. My proposed legislation will use that remaining amount annually to provide prepaid scholarships to students from TANF eligible families so that they may attend community colleges in their area. These scholarships will be in the amount of $4,000 per year, and would be applied toward the costs of their yearly tuition and books. Nearly 5,000 students in Virginia would qualify for this scholarship.
Too often, Pell Grants do not cover the full cost of tuition and books; for our young men and women who live in poverty, that fact prevents them from attending college. This bill will allow families who are receiving assistance the opportunity to send their child to college, who without such financial assistance might otherwise not have the opportunity for a post-secondary education.
We’ve been setting some unusual and surprising records this session. The number of visitors to the General Assembly Building, where legislators’ offices are located and where most of the committee hearings are held, has reached numbers not seen in nearly 30 years.
On Monday, 4,858 people entered the General Assembly Building and on Tuesday 4,942 did. Lines waiting to get through building security reached far into Capitol Square. These record numbers are coming as somewhat of a surprise during what has been a busy legislative year, but not one with an overarching issue preoccupying the public or the media.
Those working their way through the floors (with six packed and overwhelmed elevators) are not here protesting, but most often just visiting with their local lawmakers, and letting them hear what issues are important to them. This is the best part of a democratic form of government, and one of my favorite parts of the job.
We certainly had our share of visitors from home this week. Some of these included, local elected officials, members of the Farm Bureau, local school board, students from various Colleges and Universities across the Commonwealth and every day citizens who are engaged in the process. Thank you to everyone who stopped by:
My visitors included Gerald Williams of Patrick Springs and Victor Williams, Betty Moorman, Sandra Stone, Janet Rorrer, and Dr. William Stroufe, all of Stuart.
If you are planning to join the throngs making Virginia’s Capitol the “in” place this winter, please remember to stop by our offices in Room 313 of the General Assembly Building. If there’s an issue under consideration this session on which you’d like to share your views, please send us an e-mail at District20@senate.virginia.gov or by sending a letter to me at Senate of Virginia, P.O. Box 396, Richmond VA 23218-0396. You can also call us at (804) 698-7520.
We’re getting close to crossover, the midway point of the legislative session. Next week, I’ll have more information on the progress of legislation. Until then, have a great week.