On May 30, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan budget bill that included Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of Virginians in need of access to healthcare. This was a long-overdue legislative action, and helps lift the burden from those who often have to decide between managing a chronic illness or feeding a child in the home. In the last five years we have left billions of dollars behind for use by the 31 other states that have embraced the Affordable Care Act. This is a solid measure that brings back Virginia’s federal taxpayer dollars.
Make no mistake about it, thousands of people in our region will benefit from Medicaid expansion. Nearly 11,000 individuals living in the 35th Senate District will be eligible to enroll in the program once it’s launched. You may know them — they are our working neighbors struggling to make ends meet. The working poor with revenue below 138 percent of the federal poverty level are eking out a living comparable to that in a third-world country. These people are not afraid of a work requirement as they are no stranger to hard work. Some are adult children with mental disabilities relying on their families to support them. Some are the elderly, young children, and disabled individuals that cannot work.
In the biennial budget, two important issues in healthcare will also be addressed. We will be earmarking $84.3 million dollars for Community Behavioral Health Services. Steps will be taken to fund community service boards that continue to address opioid addiction. Additionally, there will be an appropriation to address the growing addicted population landing in our jails.
The budget bill is hundreds of pages long but is a fiscally-responsible, balanced, financial plan. Here are just a few of the highlights that I would like to bring to your attention.
Maintaining our AAA bond rating, we have created a new reserve fund with a deposit of $247.4 million over three years beginning this fiscal year. We will contribute any surpluses from 2018 revenue to the Rainy Day Fund. These steps lay the foundation for a structurally-balanced budget.
The budget headed to the Governor’s desk includes a critical and well-deserved three percent pay raise for teachers. We owe our educators more than a thank you note and that’s why I was so insistent that this pay raise stay in the final budget bill.
The final budget also includes pay raises for law enforcement personnel. They keep us safe in our homes and on the roads and should not have to live on food stamps because they are serving our communities. Additional funding will provide an increase in starting salaries for entry-level sheriff deputies and correction officers.
Keeping our colleges and universities affordable and accessible remains my top priority. When we move money away from our colleges and universities, we put the dreams of Virginians at risk. In the next biennium we provide $29.2 million for undergraduate need-based financial aid. We also allocate $4 million over the two years for the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant program as well as an additional $1.8 million for tuition assistance grants to students attending non-profit, private institutions in Virginia.
Investing in public education at the earliest level is critical to the long-term success of our children. Over the biennium will we add $4.6 million to the Virginia Preschool initiative. There are appropriations to assist provisionally licensed preschool teachers obtain their degrees. There is a small appropriation to increase aid to local libraries for summer reading and STEAM programs.
We continue to make strategic investments for an improved economy. Southwest and Southside Virginia continue to struggle as they retool. We will invest new resources into broadband statewide as well as funds for site development at the VA Economic Development Partnership. GO Virginia will see increased funding for the regional grant program. The Port of Virginia is a vital economic resource. To remain competitive, $20 million plus more than $300 million in bond proceeds will fund the deepening and widening of the Hampton Roads Harbor Channel.
I have been a budget conferee for many years. This is the first time I could support a spending plan that was produced outside our usual and customary protocols. Putting Virginians first made more sense to me than clinging to the last gasps of resistance to the Affordable Care Act.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at [email protected]