The November elections and Thanksgiving are now in the rearview mirror. There was unprecedented voter participation in the House of Delegate and statewide elections. I commend those who worked relentlessly to get people to take this non-presidential election seriously. There’s no mistaking that Virginians sought an outlet for their frustrations at the ballot box, with nearly 50 percent of eligible voters exercising their cherished right. Once again, I thank you for your support and for embracing the positive vision that keeps Virginia moving forward in this new economy with opportunity for all.
December brings a festive time of the year concentrating on family and friends. It also marks the countdown to the General Assembly (Jan. 10), the inauguration of Governor-elect Ralph Northam (Jan. 13) as well as the swearing in of the members of the House of Delegates. As of this writing, majority control of that chamber is still under debate. I remain committed to working with my colleagues and soon to be Governor Northam for the best policies that enhance the lives of Virginians, provide a skilled workforce for the 21st Century economy with jobs that sustain their families and the compassion to lift up our most vulnerable citizens. We will continue to be wise stewards of our resources in a fiscally responsible manner.
On Dec. 18, Governor McAuliffe will present his proposed biennial budget to the Joint Money Committees of the General Assembly. This will become the basis for the ensuing debate prior to the budget’s adoption by the Legislature. We will also be closing out the current fiscal year and approving what is known as the “caboose” budget bill. While our revenues continue to steadily improve, we are also seeing some major implications from the federal government reaching deep into Virginia.
The Senate Finance Committee recently held its annual retreat to take a look at major areas of the budget. Virginia’s unemployment rate stands at 3.6%, one of the lowest in the nation. However, not all parts of the Commonwealth are enjoying that same experience. We must direct our attention to those areas that are in desperate need of rebuilding their local economy. It will take a change in culture and require a holistic approach. We will do due diligence on existing programs and look to their merits based on the return on investment for taxpayer dollars.
As of this writing, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (a partnership based on funding from the federal government) needs to be reauthorized. If not renewed, it potentially leaves 60,000 kids without access to healthcare. Virginia has been reluctant to expand Medicaid to thousands of qualifying citizens annually leaving more than a billion dollars from the federal government on the table. After nearly a decade, the reasons run hollow. What has become abundantly clear with the Nov. 7 election is that Virginians value their healthcare and want to level the playing field with the premiums they pay. Governor-elect Northam, a pediatric neurologist and the founder of a small business, knows quite a bit about the quality, access to providers, and the costs of healthcare. We are ready to address this issue under his guidance and believe we are closer to agreement with the other side of the aisle than we have been in years past.
Higher education and workforce development are two other areas ripe for transformation under Governor Northam. Virginia has seen its funding per student at public colleges and universities tick lower and lower. Per a 2014 JLARC study about the cost of higher education, “State operating funding per in-state student is one-third less than it was in the late 1990s.” How can Virginia possibly expect to compete in a global economy if it does not invest in its future workforce? On the workforce development front, the New Economy Workforce Grant Program, a program that incentivizes students to complete non-credit training programs in high demand fields, has almost tripled the number of credentials, licenses and certifications awarded last year at Virginia’s Community Colleges. Virginia must continue to develop, deploy, and fund these innovative programs that help align the Commonwealth’s workforce with the demands of a global economy.
A quick note to commuters, the I-66 Express Lanes are now open inside the Beltway. Please check VDOT’s website for more information. I hope you and your families have an enjoyable holiday season and a healthy and prosperous New Year. Please remember our small business neighbors when shopping for the holidays.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]