By Sen. Bill Stanley
Like almost all state legislatures, the Virginia General Assembly begins its sessions in winter. Only one state, Louisiana, commences its legislative session after the first day of spring.
A vestige of a bygone era when many lawmakers were farmers, holding legislative sessions during months when the weather outside is often inhospitable made sense. When we were mostly an agrarian society, doing the people’s business during the winter months permitted those elected representatives to return home and tend to their fields by spring.
Now, the timing of session is based more on tradition than practicality but it’s a tradition that still works pretty well. Perhaps more important to the continuation of this tradition is that Virginia’s General Assembly remains to this day a part-time legislative body, with legislators whose main professions are something other than what is otherwise known as being a “career politician.”
After our two-month session concludes each year, we go home to our districts and resume our normal careers in our chosen fields, while tending to the needs of our constituents as they arise. This perspective allows us to be in constant contact with the region that we serve, from spring to fall, in order to learn what our community needs from the state during the following year’s session of the General Assembly.
This year for me was no different, as I drafted and sponsored bills that if passed, would help our community in the areas of rural healthcare, public education, workforce development, the transformation of New College Institute, breaking the cycle of poverty by creating new opportunities for children that live at or below the poverty level, and the construction of Interstate 73 in Southside and the Roanoke Valley.
In total, I authored over 30 pieces of legislation—22 of my bills were passed by the Senate, with 13 of these bills being passed by the House of Delegates, and now sit on the Governor’s desk for his signature.
When session began, Virginia was facing a $1.25 billion shortfall. Governor McAuliffe’s package of budget amendments that he submitted before the 2017 session began failed to address a critical retention problem for the law enforcement, an unfulfilled pay raise for classified state employees, and much-needed salary increases for public school teachers. His plan included higher fees and cuts to economic development programs.
But what a difference 46 days makes. The General Assembly approved a fiscally conservative package of budget amendments. Funding was prioritized, placing an emphasis on the core services of government and actual needs.
The budget plan approved by the Republican majorities in the House and Senate—with bipartisan support—raised the base pay of law enforcement to address the retention problem. Classified state employees and public school teachers will receive a pay increase. And, economic development will not face the severe cuts proposed by the Governor. We balanced the budget and accomplished these goals without raising taxes.
There was progress on other fronts, too. The General Assembly approved a package of bills to address the opioid addiction crisis and took essential steps towards remedying the mess at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. In all, the House and Senate have sent around 800 bills to the Governor’s desk for his consideration.
On April 5, we’ll be reconvening to consider his proposed amendments to all the bills passed, overrides to any of his vetoes of proposed legislation, and any attempts by the Governor to further amend our budget plan.
The final days of the General Assembly usually involve long sessions, as the House and Senate work on reconciling differences in legislation. In order to send a bill to the Governor, House and Senate versions must be identical. To resolve differences, a conference committee of three delegates and three senators meet to work out differences. When they reach an agreement, both chambers must approve the bill in its final form.
This year, I had two important items that directly impact our area to help improve the economy. One is my bill SB 806 the Interstate 73 Corridor Development Program and the other is in the budget language in reference to New College Institute.
I am happy to report that my bill, SB 806 the Interstate 73 Corridor Development Program passed the Senate of Virginia 26-13 on February 3 and recently passed the House of Delegates 67-32. Senate Bill 806 will reallocate and transfer an existing revenue stream for U.S. Route 58 towards the construction of Interstate 73, once the four-lane construction of Route 58 has been completed but the House of Delegates amended this bill with a re-enactment clause.
However, while this bill will not take effect until Route 58 is completed, the Virginia General Assembly has made, for the first time, a major commitment to our region by demonstrating that Virginia is serious about building I-73. This project will not only benefit our region, but will also be a boon to the entire Virginia economy.
The construction of I-73 will provide our area with up to 53,000 good-paying permanent jobs, attract new businesses to our region, and will provide our local governments with over $300 million in annual revenues for our schools and public safety, as well as over $400 million annually in tax revenue to the state government.
The final passage of this bill by General Assembly is a firm policy statement that Interstate I-73 is a critical piece of Virginia’s economic future. This will allow us to work with other states and the federal government for the construction of I-73 in our lifetime. The importance of this critical infrastructure to our region’s future economy cannot be overstated.
Once completed this interstate highway will connect Southside and Southwest Virginia to three deep water ports in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. This connectivity of our area with these ports and the interior mid-west of the United States will link us permanently to the global economy, which in turn will guarantee the future economic success of a community that has suffered economically for too long, and has watched its jobs go overseas after the federal passage of the devastating free trade agreements with South American nations.
Another major commitment from the Commonwealth to our area is found in the amendment to our budget known as “item 249 #1s” regarding the New College Institute. As you may be aware, I was elected to serve as the chairman of the New College Board of Directors for the next two years; it is my firm commitment that we will transform New College into a state of the art institution of higher learning in the next 18 months. This budget amendment is a first giant step in this process in not only putting the Institute firmly in control of its own destiny, but also control of New College’s physical structure on the historic Baldwin Block in downtown Martinsville.
The amendment does the following: it increases the state funding of New College to $3.59 million; it mandates that the state acquire ownership of the main building at the Baldwin Block location; and it requires that New College work in collaboration with local community colleges such as Patrick Henry Community College and Danville Community College along with Virginia colleges and universities to provide the “plus two” baccalaureate degree in fields of study that are in demand for various industries that will employ New College students immediately upon graduation.
It also directs that The New College Institute and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to work together and provide options for alternative pricing which will result in lower charges/tuition rates for programs and courses offered to citizens of the region.
This will allow students to either obtain the certification or continue their education while not being burdened with the overwhelming student loan debt that has plagued many young people.
This amendment in the budget re-affirms Virginia’s strong support of New College, and it will transform New College into a 21st century state-of-the-art college that provides the best educational opportunities for our community. It allows New College to now engage in a forward-looking and innovative approach to educating our new workforce in the 21st century that will be like no other college education that is offered by traditional institutions in Virginia.
By rebuilding New College into a state of the art educational institution, it will be the cornerstone of a new economic foundation that will be a magnet to draw new industries and advanced manufacturing to our area.
Both the passage of SB 806 and the aforementioned budget amendment are major commitments from the Commonwealth of Virginia to this area in our tireless efforts to return Southside and Southwest Virginia to economic prosperity.
Well, that’s all the news I have from the 2017 session of the Virginia General Assembly. We’ll be back in five weeks for a single-day session to consider the Governor’s actions on bills, and I will be sure to update you all further on what happens during the “veto session.”
With the session over, we’re back home in our district offices. I want to thank this paper for generously printing my dispatches from Richmond over the last seven weeks. I also want to thank you for taking the time to read them. It’s an honor to represent the citizens of the 20th District in the Senate of Virginia. I am truly grateful for this opportunity to serve.