Local Commentary

Senator Saslaw’s Richmond Report

One month ago, Virginia legislators were wrapping up a historic General Assembly session. Historic for many reasons: an avalanche of introduced bills that the legislators plowed through; huge gains for working families including a plan to increase the minimum wage starting next year; codifying protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and business; and one of the most progressive biennial budgets in decades. It didn’t take but a week after the raucous adjournment of the unprecedented Session for Covid-19 to shatter the well thought out plans.

Coronavirus has made its way into our daily lives in every corner of Virginia. It requires unexpected sacrifice and discipline to navigate the challenging waters we now find ourselves in. There is no better time for leaders to rise up and inspire others to act responsibly. I want to assure you that “the doctor is in.” Governor Northam, a former pediatric neurologist, and his Administration are thoughtfully moving through this crisis with a clinical approach, hands-on experience, and collaboration between Virginia’s elected officials and others. Communication lines are wide open and the governor’s 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday briefings are aired on TV and streamed on Facebook.

While we are totally engaged in delivering the best services against the coronavirus, other necessary functions of government continue. The governor and his cabinet along with staff have been reviewing the hundreds of bills we passed during the legislative session. We are to reconvene on April 22 in Richmond to address the measures he has either amended or will veto. One of the most significant pieces of legislation passed was the biennial budget.

When we adjourned on March 12, we had one of the most progressive, structurally-sound spending plans to begin on July 1, the fiscal year. The economy was stable, and we established key priorities that laid the foundation for Virginians’ future in a robust economy. Fortunately, we had planned to add to the rainy day fund and revenue cash reserve which soon may be tapped into.

Public service often involves financial sacrifices. The proposed budget provided an infusion in compensation for teachers, state employees, state supported local employees, state police troopers, and adjunct faculty. This was intentional and aimed to attract and retain the best in their professions.

The legislature saw fit to provide major support for education. From pre-K through higher ed, we addressed years of limited funding. We are still playing catch up from 2008. There is an undeniable connection between the new Virginia economy and a skilled workforce. Children learn exponentially before they come to first grade. I supported both First Lady Pam Northam’s initiatives for pre-K as well as the moves we made to ensure the pipeline of workers that will lead us forward with degrees, certifications and/or other industry credentials. Our aim is to get people in the workforce with the least amount of debt. Last dollar support for community college students was an investment we could not pass up.

Behavior health, Medicaid, and other health and human services were front burner areas in this spending plan. That also included raises for personal care providers who provide care to our most vulnerable. It remains unclear what the costs of this pandemic will be for hospitals, nursing homes and in-home delivery of services. Rest assured we are seriously reviewing all the resources available including revenue from the CARES Act to implement this particular segment of the biennial budget.

In this column, I have previously written about the Transportation Act. It’s no state secret that we have greater demands for moving people and goods throughout the Commonwealth. Road maintenance, mass transit, rail, and new infrastructure construction will be addressed with the earmarked funds.

The priorities for Virginia’s spending plan are likely to remain the same but of course will be subject to change. I continue to hear from many people with ideas on how best to combat the silent infection working its way through the nation. I encourage you to pay heed to the professionals and follow the directives that are being shared almost daily from the governor and other elected officials passing along that information. I commend you for your generosity and thoughtfulness as you look after your families and neighbors.