March 10 marked the end of the regular session of the 2012 General Assembly. Sine Die was gaveled in without the passage of a new biennial budget for the Commonwealth. After sixty days of the most contentious legislative session I have ever witnessed, we immediately went into Special Session to take up that single task – a state spending plan to coincide with the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2012. As of this writing, the process is a long way from being finished. The House of Delegates (HOD) passed its version of a bill (HB1301) which has been carried over into the Special Session. The Senate Finance Committee has yet to complete its work on the document. Once a compromise is reached between the Senate Democrats and Republicans, the full body will vote on the bill. Then whatever form that bill takes, it will be sent to the HOD for a vote as well.
Make no mistake about why the legislature is at an impasse. Initiating the process, last December Governor McDonnell submitted a two year spending plan that calls for using General Fund (GF) money to address the ever growing issue of transportation construction and maintenance. This is an unacceptable raid of the GF, snatching desperately needed funds for public safety, K-12 public education, aid to our localities trying to fund teacher retirement and puts at risk our most vulnerable citizens in need of human services. Then once the legislature got its chance for amendments, all of the money received from the Mortgage Foreclosure Settlement (nearly $69M) was put into aid to localities; a surplus fund to trigger a raise for state employees and approximately $1.3M+ to the Attorney General’s office. Admittedly, there were no strings attached to this federal settlement, however, it just doesn’t seem right to not apply any of these funds into the Housing Trust Fund to assist people facing the loss of their homes and/or bankruptcy. These are just a few of the reasons I could not support the introduced budget bills. There are hundreds of pages to this document that can be found at the link sfc.virginia.gov.
How did we get into this situation? As you may recall, the regular session began with a tie in the Senate (20 Democrats and 20 Republicans duly elected in their respective districts) and a Republican Lt. Governor that cast votes to reorganize the evenly split Senate with a heavy handed, imbalance of representation on Committees. This overreach of power set the stage for the now infamous War on Women and the repeal of the Purchase of One Gun A Month Law. The list goes on and the result were the same – in less than six weeks, Virginia became a comedy act for Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher; the written subject of notorious commentary from coast to coast as well as fodder for the daily talk shows. Extreme legislation that was previously handled in Committees was now being passed out in both Chambers like jellybeans at the White House Easter Eggroll. While the Family Foundation and the Civil Defense League touted its victories, businesses started to question how VA would attract and retain entrepreneurs and the skilled staff needed to be a global competitor. Senate Democrats stood together fighting for a number of things including the future of our children and their education; appropriate funding for transportation solutions that do NOT include excessive tolling as well as displacement of nursing home residents by lowering the standard for Medicaid eligibility. It also makes sense if Government is going to mandate an unnecessary medical procedure (in this case an ultrasound prior to terminating a pregnancy), the woman should not be responsible for its costs.
The 35th Senate District is home to some of the most highly educated people in the Commonwealth. During this past session I heard from thousands of Constituents asking for the legislature to focus on sound public policy and fiscal responsibility. Along with my Democratic Senate colleagues, I remain resolved to lead the fight for sensible public policy and a budget that fairly meets the needs of Virginians. Unlike opening day on January 11, the Lt. Governor cannot vote on the state budget bill. Therefore, we will find a compromise that does not feed into the frenzy of the overreach of power we have seen since the onset of the General Assembly. And that friends and neighbors, has not a single thing to do with bruised egos as some have suggested regarding keeping a balance in the legislature’s approach to public policy.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be e-mailed at [email protected]