As we go to print for this column, the legislature is coming down to the wire with the official end of the 2020 Legislative Session quickly approaching. The final days of the General Assembly are spent on reconciling the proposed biennial budget submitted by the Governor against the amendments approved by the House and Senate. With a cautious eye toward any economic downturn, we are moving forward.
The most notable priority for the new Democratic majority is investments in Virginians — from children to the elderly; from public safety to the most vulnerable in our Commonwealth; from the environment to infrastructure. By law, we will make substantial deposits into the Rainy Day Fund and restrict surplus revenues to one-time spending.
As chair of the subcommittee on K-12 Education, I lead the fight for fully funding the Standards of Quality (SOQ) rebenchmarking. Our committee supported the Governor’s proposal for increased funding of $81 million for the Virginia Preschool Initiative Program, a $57 million increase for at-risk students, and a provision for an additional $28 million for the state’s share of additional instructors for students with limited English proficiency.
This year, we suggested revenue be used to increase the state’s share of a 4 percent increase in teacher salaries in the second year of the biennium. In an effort to decrease the ratio of students to counselors we have placed an additional $40 million in the Senate amendments.
Senate proposed spending for higher education reflects a $60.6 million infusion for additional undergraduate need-based financial aid. We’ve included $96.7 million over the next two years for a “last dollar plus” community college workforce initiative (G3). Tuition Assistance Grants are funded higher than initially proposed in both the HOD and Senate amendments. Bear in mind, the quest to freeze college tuition must correlate to the related costs for students to attend our world-class colleges and universities. We also want to maintain the number of slots for in-state students at our public colleges and universities. This requires a balancing act when funding these flagship schools.
The Senate spending plan also addresses concerns for families in need of home healthcare providers. Money has been earmarked for a 5 percent raise in the caboose budget bill with another 2 percent to be implemented on July 2, 2021. Overtime will be allowed for up to 16 hours/week. We took steps to increase provider rates for nursing homes, residential psychiatric facilities, skilled and private duty nursing, and adult daycare. Doubling funding for permanent supportive housing for individuals with serious mental illness is a step in providing a safe environment as well as preventing homelessness. The Senate added funding for waiver slots, too. Long overdue, this spending plan also features funding for oral health coverage under Medicaid.
Revisiting the issue of infrastructure, we are working toward consensus for reclaiming funds for Metro, leveraging bonds for a new rail bridge across the Potomac that will provide commuters with an alternative to cars, injecting new money into mitigating congestion in our region, and maintaining road repairs. Both the Speaker and I are carrying consequential legislation related to transportation. Those measures, SB 890/HB1414 are in conference as of this writing.
Protecting our environment is essential. Meaningful funds for land conservation, rebuilding of oyster reefs, and water quality improvement are all on the table. All three proposals align with funding for broadband expansion which is a game-changer for rural and underserved regions in the Commonwealth. Addressing the needs of a thriving economy in Northern Virginia, we seek to make substantive investments for affordable housing and reduce homelessness.
Continuing to recap some major legislative achievements, there has been movement on issues concerning gun violence prevention. We have passed bills to require background checks, reinstate the one gun a month purchase rule, implement red flag laws and prohibit bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.