We are moving toward adjournment in a rapid stride to the finish. March 12 is the scheduled close of the 2016 General Assembly. Many bills are waiting to be voted on, and the debates continue in committee and on the floor. Reconciling the amendments to the budget bill are the top priority these days.
Teachers are the frontline of knowledge for Virginia’s children. This year both the Senate and House are committed to giving our educators a long overdue pay raise, even if it comes without a local match. Additionally, we hope to fund these raises in 2016.
As I highlighted in this column in January, addressing the skills gap and building a competitive workforce are both crucial for economic development in the state. To that end I’m pleased both the House and Senate versions of the budget focused heavily on funding for K-12 education and industry credentials. Careers are shifting towards technical fields, requiring us to rethink curricula for high school and post-secondary students. We must better prepare students for the multitude of jobs in new and rising industries such as cyber security and advanced manufacturing. Offering alternatives to the workforce apart from the traditional four-year degree should also address some of the escalating student debt that is strangling the next generation.
The General Assembly has been focused on growing and diversifying the economy. Make no mistake about the urgency of climbing out of the recession and the impact of sequestration on Virginia’s economy. The Port of Virginia, which serves as Virginia’s global gateway through interconnected waterways and railroads, has turned the corner and is once again operating in the black. The Port processed 2.3 million shipping containers in 2014 and remains the only U.S. East Coast port with Congressional authorization for 55-foot depth channels. These two facts alone underscore the need to support the Port with robust funding. Its growth is a positive sign for the Commonwealth and we should continue to invest in its expansion.
Another international gateway in the Commonwealth, Dulles Airport, has suffered a decline in travel and is in danger of losing its status as a major airline hub. To address this potential crisis, the Senate is looking to provide $50 million to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to decrease enplanement costs. This ultimately should reduce prices for the consumer, spur travel demand, and afford Dulles an opportunity to restructure its debt so the airport can offer the best travel experience and the best prices.
There are currently more than 10,300 Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities on the waiting list for community based care. Virginia is attempting to remedy this problem by reforming the Intellectual Disabilities (ID) and Developmental Disabilities (DD) waiver program. These waivers provide medical and non-medical services for the disabled. However, while the cost of services and equipment has increased, the available funding has remained the same, making it so that ID/DD waivers are not fully supporting those who rely on them. This leaves many Virginians at the mercy of a waiting list that continues to grow and unable to afford the care they need to be able to live at home.
The Senate has proposed an amendment that would use the new Individual and Family Support Services waiver to shorten the waiting list and also decrease per person costs. Ultimately, it would begin to cover the costs of those on the waiting list early, which in turn would reduce the need for expensive hospitalization or institutionalization by making payments easier on the family and preventing caregiver burnout. The new waivers would be designed specifically for the needs of the patient and would add more flexibility.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]