Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

saslaw-fcnpWe are well into the Fall of 2014 and the continuing saga of the Special Session of the General Assembly. Co-incidentally, this session is in its seventh month – far longer than any regular session of the legislature. How could that be? I suspect it is because Governor McAuliffe is officed on the third floor of the Patrick Henry Building. Couple this with the dominance of Republican legislators in the House of Delegates and the newly minted narrow majority in the Senate, you have the components for mirroring the gridlock we see across the Potomac River.

A few weeks ago, we were called back to Richmond to consider the expansion of Medicaid in the Commonwealth. Under more rational circumstances, one would think logical and meaningful debate would be the expected outcome. In case you missed it, here is what occurred. Delegate Tom Rust introduced one bill to spark the debate. That measure was defeated on a parliamentary move on the floor of the House without a vote. In the Senate, eight bills were introduced – most of which were heard or voted on by elected members. A bill to provide tax credit incentives for hospitals was sent to JLARC for study its fiscal impact. To be honest, this came as no surprise. Virtually nothing has changed in either Chamber that would provide a venue for serious debate on the issue of access to healthcare for hundreds of thousands of Virginians. I have repeatedly spoken about the millions of dollars earmarked for the state that are left on the table in Washington. Additionally, the economy suffers without nearly 30,000 new jobs that would be required to meet the demands in the health care industry.

One significant action during the special session addressed an anticipated revenue shortfall in both years of the biennium budget. Due to the special session, we had an opportunity to send a message to Wall Street and the business community that the Commonwealth is working to address its budget shortfall early and efficiently. To keep from draconian cuts, we found it necessary to tap into the “rainy day fund” for over $700 million dollars.

With more accurate forecasts at our disposal, we ratcheted down spending across the board. However, only K-12 public education was spared any further cuts. Our colleges and universities did not fare as well. I remain concerned about the anticipated outcomes for reducing state support for higher education. We all know that there is significantly more income from an out-of-state student than an in-state student. Further, if classes are not available due to budget restrictions, it often extends student learning into the proverbial “Five Year Plan.” This has a chilling affect on student and family debt. We need to address this matter before it becomes the reality.

Other important “savings” and reductions include: a $30 million reduction in state aid to localities. Each locality is to be given flexibility to identify which programs to reduce. All state agencies will reduce their budgets by 4% in each year of the biennium. We put off funding vacant judgeships until December 2014.

These are just a few of the highlights of the recent actions by the General Assembly. Look for additional debate to come when we go back in January for the regular session. We will also revisit the appointment of judges – a perennial contentious subject.

I would like to remind you to make sure you are using the HOT lanes properly. Be sure to mount your EZPass and that it matches the license plate of the vehicle you are driving. Also, the new Silver Line is operating at over 60% of anticipated use for the remainder of this year. This is good news for the heavily congested Reston/Tysons corridor.

Election day is less than a month away. Our region will elect three members of Congress – long serving, retired elected officials have vacated two of the seats. Thank you Jim Moran and Frank Wolf for your many years of service on behalf of Virginians. I cannot think of a better team than Gerry Connolly, Don Beyer and John Foust, to represent us in the House of Representatives. Additionally, we will elect a senator for a six-year term. Mark Warner is running for re-election and I fully endorse him. Be sure you are familiar with new voting requirements. You must have a photo ID with you when you go to vote on November 4.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at district35@senate.virginia.gov.