The General Assembly concluded its regular business last week, a day ahead of schedule. This in itself was great progress considering the 2014 special session ended minutes prior to the opening of the 2015 legislative session. Despite attempts to better manage the number of bills introduced in a short 45-day session, over 3,000 bills came through the system. The Commonwealth is a vibrant, well managed state recognized as business friendly and one of the best in the nation to raise a child, and yet each year we find ourselves facing mountains of initiatives to fix some problem or another. To a large degree many bills originate in both bodies giving an issue effectively, two lives. Crossover gives the Senate a chance to review, amend and/or dispatch the House bills and vice versa.
Amendments to the budget bill came to closure with both the Senate and House in bipartisan agreement. This was the last year the Senate Finance Committee would have the expertise of Senators Chuck Colgan, Walter Stosch and John Watkins. They are retiring and leaving a big void in institutional history as well as state finance expertise. Under their leadership, we have seen a fair and balanced budget that puts Virginia families first, entices businesses to the Commonwealth and attempts to address the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. I have recently shared the highlights of the budget conference in my weekly newsletter. If you missed that, you may go to dicksaslaw.com and follow the links to the adopted budget bill and the newsletter highlights.
One of the most challenging bills of the session focused on the reporting of sexual abuse on our college campuses. Victim advocate groups weighed in on the right of an individual’s privacy versus the school’s ability to address criminal matters. The bill that ultimately emerged was a compromise that puts in place a memorandum of understanding with local advocate groups, creates an assessment team that includes law enforcement at the table and balances the individual’s privacy with the safety of the public at large.
Once again, we saw several attempts to tighten up ethics reform that was started in 2014. In my opinion, the 49 page omnibus bill is complex and it may do more harm than good in the long run. I have stated many times, when in doubt, do without. The new measure calls for a $100 limit on gifts, including meals and trips. Additionally, it also creates a nine-member ethics council that will oversee enforcement of professional related travel that may be paid for by a lobbyist. The Governor has the opportunity to sign, amend or veto this measure, which nearly caused a stalemate to the General Assembly. I believe this issue will be revisited again in future years.
It came as no surprise to see the assault on public education that is now standard operating procedure every year at the General Assembly. From vouchers to home school athletes wanting to play for the local school division, we fought hard to preserve our public education. How else do we expect to be competitive in the global economy? Our teachers will get a 3 percent pay increase if half of that is matched at the local level. State funding for public education continues to be at a level slightly below 2009 – this puts a lot of pressure on the localities when it comes to maintaining our world-class education. So when it comes to “creative” ways to syphon money out of our public schools, I will lead the fight to put a halt to that kind of math.
I want to thank our page and messenger from Glasgow Middle for their service during the General Assembly. I also applaud their teachers for their efforts to accommodate these aspiring young students who in addition to their Richmond responsibilities, were able to keep up with their academic endeavors. This is a nationally acclaimed program and I am always proud of the students that I get to appoint.
Many of you visited my office in Richmond. Thanks for making the trip and participating in the process. We had three town halls in January and early February. I appreciate all of you attending those and for staying in touch during the session. Once again, I am seeking re-election and am in your neighborhood to get petitions signed to get on the ballot. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]