On January 13, the General Assembly will convene. Front and center will be the work of putting together the biennial budget. Governor McAuliffe has proposed a plan that is fiscally responsible and lays the foundation for a new Virginia economy. In 2014, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership noted that “Virginia has all the right assets to continue our economic leadership throughout the 21st century.” With vision and bipartisan cooperation, our economic assets can lay the foundation for economic prosperity.
Virginia boasts a record $550 million surplus, rising personal income levels, and one of the lower unemployment rates in the nation at 4.2 percent. In fact, localities in the 35th Senate district such as Falls Church City (3.0 percent), Alexandria City (3.2 percent), and Fairfax County (3.3 percent) boast some of the lowest unemployment rates anywhere. Congress delayed sequestration for two more years and even passed a five-year transportation plan. By all accounts the region and the state are on economic cruise control. But a look ahead shows that Northern Virginia and the Commonwealth are staring at an economic crossroads.
Through good times and bad, booms and busts, there remains a constant: long-term economic prosperity stems from investing in public education, growing the skills and talent base, and positioning for the jobs of the future. As a businessman and as a husband of a long-time public educator, I’ve seen first-hand the importance of supporting K-12 and higher education and sustaining a business-friendly climate in Virginia. And while our Commonwealth has plenty to be proud of on these fronts we also face stark realities. Nearly 5,000 K-12 positions have been lost in the state over the last seven years. Public education is funded at the same level it was nearly a decade ago. More than 175,000 middle-skill job vacancies sit unfilled. CNBC’s annual scorecard on economic climate, which ranked Virginia 1st as recently as 2009, now ranks Virginia 12th. And the threat of sequestration and additional uncertainty at the federal level will loom large again sooner than we think. Virginia must act now to plot its own economic destiny and lay a foundation for the new Virginia economy.
First and foremost is public education. Governor McAuliffe has proposed more than $1 billion in new investment for K-12 and higher education to ensure Virginia graduates are ready to compete in a global economy. This investment includes money for 2,500 new K-12 teachers, pay raises for teachers, and significant funding to ensure K-12 standards of quality stay relevant and current.
At the higher education level, I am particularly enthusiastic about an innovative $25 million proposal to help Virginia’s Community College System generate an additional 50,000 STEM-H workforce credentials annually. These new credentials will expand the middle class and help local businesses fill jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma. College completion must also remain an attainable goal for Virginia’s families. $48 million in new financial aid will help thousands of at-risk students earn degrees – degrees that will pay decades of dividends to Virginia’s economy.
The Governor has also introduced a forward-looking bond package that infuses sorely needed capital into research, technology, and engineering infrastructure at Virginia’s colleges and universities. These improvements will help grow a talent pipeline that attracts and retains businesses in high-tech, high-growth industries to Northern Virginia.
Throughout my many years of public service I’ve worked to bring about real results for Northern Virginia. Real results provide individuals the opportunity to earn a degree or credential from a high-quality school, the opportunity to get ahead and earn a living, the opportunity to settle down and raise a family. The proposals on the table during the upcoming General Assembly Session for investing in public education and sustaining a business-friendly climate will bring real results to the Commonwealth for years to come. I invite you to join me in growing the new Virginia economy.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]