This should be my last column from Richmond before the scheduled adjournment of the General Assembly. In my opinion, this session has proven to meet the standard of winter “wonderland” on several fronts. One cannot help but wonder what new creative math we’ll see next or what tale will be told to seal a legislative deal during this long session of the legislature.
Despite great expectations for ethics reform, the discovery process revealed what I have said all along – either you have a working moral compass or you don’t. You don’t have to look far for evidence of tougher standards and legal consequences to see its failure as a deterrent for many elected officials in our region across the Potomac. We will have new legislation from this session with an Ethics Commission, new reporting requirements, and a cap on tangible gifts to elected officials and their families. Although small steps, they’re a move in the right direction.
The budget bill remains the most controversial and divisive issue of this General Assembly. While the House of Delegates wants to stay in step with Washington Republicans including the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove, one wonders if they understand their obligation to meet the needs of their Virginia constituents. Those needs include appropriate funding for core government services – health and human services, public education, higher education, public safety. The Tea Party mantra to reduce government (only those components that do not affect them personally) seems to be the objective. That would leave hundreds of thousands uninsured in Virginian including veterans, working low-income earners, and seniors, all caught in the coverage gap. Leaving $5 million each day on the table – the money we are not using to implement access to healthcare for these same constituents – is the root of the math problem in the two opposing proposals. In an attempt to push forward, the Senate has proposed Marketplace Virginia to address access to healthcare for so many citizens. With numerous hospitals operating in the red (and a rural one already closing), the House has proposed shoring up the hospitals by moving funds from other areas of the General Fund. There are two things to remember. First, emergency room care is the most expensive and the cost is generally borne in the premiums of the insured. Second, moving money around in the General Fund comes at the expense of public education and public safety.
This brings us to the perennial issue of appropriate funding for our public school system. Our children deserve the best education and opportunities to succeed that we can provide. The men and women that dedicate themselves to educating and positioning Virginian’s students should be recognized for their unselfish work and be able to afford their lifestyle. On a positive note, several bills aimed at reforming the Standards of Learning are on their way to the governor’s desk.
During the past eight weeks, nearly every president from our colleges and universities visited my office not once but several times. It is abundantly clear that the cost of higher education keeps mounting along with student debt. Students from all over Virginia shared their concerns for the debt they incur trying to complete degrees essential to keeping them competitive in a global economy. I have spent hours and hours with the business community concerned about the economy and their need for a prepared work force. The investment we make in our colleges and universities only stands to benefit all Virginians in the long term.
No doubt most of us are “over” the work of Mother Nature, along with all the school snow days, working from home, and VDOT plows running through our neighborhoods trying to keep up with it all. Who would have thought we’d be shoveling out in March? Rumor has it that Spring is due to arrive on March 21. Let’s keep our fingers crossed with great anticipation. In the meantime, I’ll continue to lead the fight for a fair and compassionate budget that is fiscally responsible. I look forward to visiting with you in our communities in the near future.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]