Since adjourning, my colleagues have used this column space to highlight some of the work of the General Assembly. I want to talk about the missed opportunity of not having a budget. The regular session adjourned with the two Republican-led chambers (both the House and Senate) at an impasse over the biennial budget. The irony in this situation is that it resembles in reverse what occurred in 2014, when the Senate supported expanding Medicaid and the House opposed expansion. Since then the Republicans have maintained a slim majority in the Senate. But the House of Delegates came within two seats of flipping to a Democratic majority with the Blue Wave of 2017. That legislative body got the “memo.” House leaders joined with Democrats to pass an amended financial plan that included expanding Medicaid by drawing down federal monies.
When polled earlier this year, 83 percent of Virginians resolutely embraced bringing access to healthcare to our most vulnerable citizens. These citizens include children, disabled adults, pregnant women, the elderly, and working poor. We have one of the highest thresholds (138 percent of the poverty level) to qualify for Medicaid. That translates to a working family earning as little as $17,000 annually — hard to imagine. But that’s what a minimum wage take-home pay can be for many unskilled workers. During the 2018 legislative session, all bills to raise the minimum wage met a swift demise at the hand of the same Republican legislators that think businesses will shut their doors if they paid employees a sustainable living wage. Believe me, something is wrong with that picture.
In addition to reclaiming the tax money paid by Virginians to the federal government, expanding Medicaid is just the moral thing to do. We are leaving some $2.5 billion a year in federal money on the table. We all know that money is not being escrowed waiting for us to capitalize on it. Another noteworthy benefit resulting from this effort will be the creation of some 30,000 new jobs in the Commonwealth.
The stalemate has far reaching effects on many other aspects of the proposed financial plan for the Commonwealth. Adding $2.5 billion dollars to the budget will go a long way for public safety, K-12, higher education and infrastructure. We just cobbled together critical funding for Metro to keep operating. My bill, SB 856, keeps the trains and buses running in the region. Look at the economic growth the Silver Line has brought to Tysons Corner. I am quite sure even my colleagues from the rural communities will acknowledge what an economic driver Metro is for the Commonwealth.
We have a shortage of teachers in this state. Using the Commonwealth’s limited resources, we are only able to offer educators a 2 percent raise. Is there a theme here about suppressing potential earnings? We are losing people to other states with higher compensation for their highly educated, experienced teachers. This does not make sense to me and resonates as another unwise policy to keep Virginians from attaining economic prosperity. Our teachers are entrusted with the children who will become the next generation of professionals and community leaders. We owe it to the students and their mentors to attract and retain the best and brightest.
Higher education provides the pipeline for a skilled workforce. On a regular basis I hear from students about the costs to obtain a degree. NVCC is a leader, offering numerous credential programs and opportunities for job certifications. In a tight economy, higher education has been cut for nearly a decade, leaving it with little recourse than to raise tuition and accept more out of state students to help balance university budgets. Students are forced to make the tough choice of incurring significant debt, foregoing purchasing books and ultimately not being able to finish their program of study. These should not be options for Virginians trying to get ahead.
The Governor has announced April 11 as the beginning of the Special Session. As a budget conferee, I intend to fight for all Virginians, our children’s future, and the economic development that enables the high quality of life we enjoy. Access to healthcare and using Virginia’s federal taxpayer dollars can make a big difference in containing the collateral damage that is inevitable from leaving those funds behind.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]