Today marks the close of the 2011 General Assembly session. Thanks to everyone who wrote, called, or visited during the session to advocate for a bill or issue, express a concern, or just say hello. Your participation in our democratic process makes a huge difference!
While we were originally scheduled to adjourn on Saturday, the budget conferees needed an extra day to wrap things up. I have a huge amount of respect for the conferees, who must balance fighting for a particular priority with compromising to let the process move forward. The vote on the budget is straight up or down - with no opportunity for further amendments.
As always, there are things that I like and don't like about the budget. On the good side, the budget includes an additional $30 million that will be used to improve services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It also provides $10 million for a new Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund that will provide matching grants for research with the potential for commercialization in Virginia, more than doubles (from $50 million to $114 million) the amount going to the Rainy Day Fund, restores some cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates, increases funding for higher education as part of a plan to increase in-state undergraduate seats by 1,725, and eliminates the Accelerated Sales Tax (AST) on 80% of Virginia businesses. The latter is a budgetary sleight of hand that requires retailers to accelerate payment of their sales tax at the end of the year. This is what allowed the FY2010 budget to balance. However, it was really at the expense of the FY2011 budget. I am very glad that the AST is on its way to being eliminated - hopefully never to return.
The budget also reinstates a requirement that state employees contribute 5% toward their retirement under the Virginia Retirement System. To hold current employees harmless, since they have not had a raise for more than three years, this change is accompanied by a 5% pay increase. By way of history, prior to 1983 state employees were required to contribute to their retirement. However, the General Assembly decided to pay the employee share in lieu of a pay increase that year. So basically, 28 years later, we are reversing that decision.
While there are several budget items that I don't agree with, the one that I have the most heart-burn with is the decision to keep the "hold harmless" provision for school systems that were negatively affected by last year's change to the Local Composite Index. As a refresher, the LCI is a funding formula, based on local ability to pay, used to determine Virginia's share of K-12 education funding. Our area pays out much more than we receive back. However, because of declining property values, most of Northern Virginia actually gained funding under the formula last year. That is only fair. However, to ease the burden on the school systems that would lose money, a "hold harmless" clause was added to the budget to keep funding flat for those localities. I think that is bad policy and undermines the legitimacy of the formula. That said, it isn't a deal breaker.
Overall, I commend the conferees for their work and voted for the budget.
Supporting Our Veterans
This session I had the honor to serve as chief co-patron of legislation introduced by Delegate Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) designed to help veterans who have fallen on tough times. Based on successful programs in New York and Pennsylvania, House Bill 1691 allows local courts to establish special dockets for veterans and active military service members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and run into trouble with the law.
According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study, nearly 20 percent of our service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many more suffer from traumatic brain injury - both diagnosed and undiagnosed. Fewer than half of these individuals actually seek treatment for PTSD or depression. Unfortunately, while trying to recover, some of these veterans fall into drug and alcohol abuse or commit minor crimes and end up in the criminal justice system. It is during these trying times that our veterans need our assistance the most.
The premise behind HB1691 is to provide alternatives to incarceration when possible and to ensure that judges are aware of the rehabilitative programs offered by state and federal agencies as well as local veterans organizations. In New York the program had a 90% successful completion rate, without a single case of recidivism. The legislation was spearheaded by the Joint Leadership Council of Veterans Service Organizations, which represents over two dozen veteran service organizations in Virginia, and passed the House and Senate unanimously.
This has been a productive session, with nine of my 15 bills on their way to the Governor for his signature. These include removing statutory barriers to the deployment of electric plug in vehicles (HB2105), enhancing the safety of family day care facilities (HB2100), and requiring the Pickett Road Tank Farm to upgrade its storage tanks to modern industry standards (HB2103).
Over 2,000 bills were introduced during the 2011 General Assembly. The Virginia Department of Legislative Services publishes a wonderful overview of major bills called "Session Highlights." Legislation covered everything from an expansion of car-title lending in Virginia (I opposed) to mandated coverage by insurance of the early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (I supported). I hope you will take a moment to explore this excellent resource by clicking here.
On adjournment of the regular session, the General Assembly immediately went into special session to deal with redistricting. While the Governor has appointed an Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting, in reality the commission will have very little influence over the process since redistricting is the constitutional purview of the General Assembly - just like any other piece of legislation. Efforts to pass legislation establishing a truly non-partisan redistricting process, many of which I co-patroned, have consistently failed in the House.
When all is said and done, the 37th District needs to grow by about 6%. The ideal district population is 80,010, while we currently come in at 75,246 according to 2010 U.S. Census data. All of this is complicated by the fact that other districts will need to grow or shrink accordingly. From a timing standpoint, new district boundaries will likely be proposed in late March, at which time there will be a short public hearing process. The General Assembly will then convene on April 4th (immediately before the Veto Session) to vote on the redistricting plan. Because Virginia is subject to the Civil Rights Act, the plan will also go through review by the federal Department of Justice. All of this means a compressed election cycle, with primaries taking place on August 23rd rather than mid-June. Never a dull moment!
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you! I look forward to seeing everyone back up in Fairfax.