This General Assembly session is in full swing as we near crossover on Feb. 7. On the national front, it’s no surprise this President continues to wreak havoc domestically and internationally with directives that are meant to satisfy a far-right base of supporters.
These reprehensible actions run counter to everything our nation stands for. JFK put it best when he said “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” My own father was an immigrant from Odessa. I am proud to represent a district with citizens from dozens of different countries and appreciate the contributions they make in our society.
Back at the Capitol, I would like to note a good news story of Top 10 Highlights of the 2017 General Assembly.
1. Governor McAuliffe announced plans for the largest solar farm ever constructed in Virginia. The facility will avoid releasing more than 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide. This important asset for the Commonwealth will be attractive to new businesses, as carbon neutrality is a priority for Corporate America.
2. VDOT has been executing its Smart Scale program. Our region benefited greatly from the first round of identified undertakings. Among other projects, work is underway on the Jones Branch Connector. The connector will provide a new link to Rt. 123 over the Capital Beltway and improve local traffic and access for drivers.
3. Attempts at dismantling Virginia’s common sense gun laws continue. With a barrage of bills, the gun lobby persists in its attacks on existing laws designed to keep people safe. Permit-less carrying is nonsense and will not prevent gun deaths. The same goes for allowing guns in schools. States with strong gun laws see fewer gun deaths.
4. The University of Virginia announced an expanded financial aid program for middle-income Virginians as well as plans to increase in-state enrollment by 100 students next year. The new “Cornerstone Grant” initiative will provide a substantial number of $2,000 tuition grants to qualified, in-state students from families making less than $125,000 per year.
5. Staying with higher ed, proposals to reduce student debt continue to meet push back in the General Assembly. A large number of students who do not complete their degree credentials, are disproportionately carrying student debt.
6. Universities and community colleges are partnering to develop the workforce pipeline for high paying jobs. Currently thousands of cyber security jobs remain open in the Commonwealth. GMU, NVCC, Marymount and eight other Virginia colleges and universities are ranked as national centers of excellence for training students in cyber security fields.
7. Concerning mental health reform, the proposed budget includes an initiative for behavioral health that totals $27.5 million in Health and Human Resources plus $4.2 million for Public Safety. The primary focus of the initiative is to fund same day access for assessment and evaluation at 25 of 40 Community Service Boards; opioid and detox treatment; a broad study of the behavioral health system; contracts for use of private psychiatric beds; discharge assistance for patients in state hospitals and the purchase of Naloxone for use in the community.
8. Once again increasing the minimum wage met an early demise in both chambers. One wonders how increasing the minimum wage by a mere 75 cents/hour this year plus small increases in three subsequent years could be such a threat to any successful business. In 2015, some 50,000 Virginias earned $7.25 an hour. This a wage that does not support any decent standard of living.
9. WMATA CEO Paul Wiedefeld reports the Safe Track schedule will wrap up in June, and by 2020 WMATA plans to have operational trains all the way to Ashburn. Adequate funding to cover the out years remains the biggest obstacle to improved service as well as redirecting people out of their cars.
10. Thanks to the First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe’s leadership, the No Kid Hungry program in Virginia served 5 million more school breakfasts in 2016 than the year before. Children are responding with better behavior and higher tests scores.
Pretty much the remainder of the session will be taken up with House bills and hammering out the remaining details for balancing the budget.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]