Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Thank you to everyone who attended my Town Hall meeting last weekend! This Saturday, I had the pleasure of hosting students from Olde Creek Elementary whose artwork depicting the heritage of Virginia is being displayed in the General Assembly Building. See below for pictures of the reception.
We are now nearing the half-way point of the 2011 session, known as "cross-over," where the House and the Senate must take action on their respective legislation. Next Monday and Tuesday are traditionally the longest floor sessions of the year as literally hundreds of bills are debated and voted on before the deadline for action at midnight on February 8th.
On Friday, we took the first vote on the Governor's proposed transportation package (HB2527). At least for now, I voted no. As noted earlier, I have serious concerns about the plan, which includes $1.1 billion in new bonds that would use future federal highway funds to pay off the debt and the acceleration of $1.8 billion in previously authorized transportation bonds. While interest rates and construction costs are at an all-time low, we are also using up limited debt capacity without a long-term plan for generating a sustainable source of revenue. An additional concern of mine is the proposed Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank. As envisioned, the bank will serve as a revolving loan fund to provide low-interest loans for transportation projects. The bank would also issue matching grants for a limited number of projects. My fear is that since Fairfax County already has an excellent bond rating, and we are likely too well off to qualify for the grants, that our region won't fully benefit - even though much of the funding for the bank will come out of the General Fund. Finally, none of the proposals adequately address road maintenance.
Since there are competing versions of the bill, the matter will eventually go to a conference committee. If the committee can reach an agreement, we will have another opportunity to vote. I am hopeful that we can come up with a solution that is fiscally sound and does not simply pass the burden on to our children.
Higher Education Reform
Although largely overshadowed by the transportation debate, the General Assembly is making progress on the issue of higher education. As state support for higher education has plummeted, universities have had to balance their budgets by increasing tuition and increasing the percentage of out-of-state students. Over the summer, the Governor's Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation, and Investment, which included representatives from the business and academic communities, was tasked with developing recommendations for how to make higher education more affordable and accessible. The results, introduced as HB2510, include a plan for increasing the number of overall slots at Virginia universities and restructuring the funding formula to provide an incentive for schools to increase the proportion of in-state students. The legislation also establishes a rainy day fund to help stabilize funding over time and increases efforts in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. Finally, the legislation establishes a roadmap for better aligning university research activities with Virginia's overall economic development activities. Although more needs to be done, this is a good step in the right direction.
Water Supply Planning - HB1738
Droughts are absolutely no fun. And while they represent an inconvenience in areas like ours, they can be absolutely devastating to farmers and small towns with limited supplies of fresh water. In 2004, Virginia passed a law requiring regional water supply planning to better coordinate supply and demand and to establish drought response procedures.
One of the challenges to planning is that many pre-1989 water withdrawals are not permitted. Rather, they are only subject to a reporting requirement. These grandfathered withdrawals account for more than 90% of the total surface water withdrawn in Virginia. Unfortunately, there is no enforcement mechanism, and many people have simply ignored the reporting requirement. Not only does that make planning very difficult, it is also unfair to those who are playing by the rules.
This past summer, I worked with the Agribusiness Council, the Farm Bureau, and the Department of Environmental Quality to develop an enforcement mechanism, while also ensuring that no one could be caught unaware of the requirement. The resulting bill, my HB1738, finally made it out of the House last Friday after a journey that took it from the State Water Commission, to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, to the House floor, back to the Appropriations Committee, and then finally to the House floor again. Call it "The Little Bill That Could."
Looking ahead, while the session is expected to adjourn on February 26th, our work doesn't end there. Rather, we will start the process of redistricting based on the newly released 2010 U.S. Census data. While I will have much more on this in March and April, the 37th District will need to grow by about 6% (4,764 people). Visit www.vpap.org for a great interactive map that shows population changes across the entire state by legislative district.
I've enjoyed seeing many of you in Richmond during the session. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have a specific issue or concern!