Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

Once again, the work of the part-time General Assembly will stretch into spring as legislators were called back to Richmond for a Special Session that gaveled in on April 4. Nearly 50 bills remain in conference and the biennial budget must be resolved.

Contrary to what some politicians would like you to believe, Virginia is a back-to-back honoree as “America’s Top State for Business” from CNBC. The rankings are derived from ten categories such as infrastructure and access to capital. The Commonwealth generally scores in the top quarter of all the categories. But what puts us over the top is scoring 3rd-best in the nation for the workforce category.

Virginia, like many states, is in a long-term demographic trough when it comes to high school graduates. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) projects that while the number of VA high school graduates will grow 6 percent to 100,000 in 2025, by 2037 that number will be barely 90,000. What does this mean? The Commonwealth must do a better job of ensuring high school graduates have access to quality and affordable postsecondary opportunities, be it a traditional four-year baccalaureate degree, a two-year degree, or some combination of workforce training that leads to a certificate, credential, or licensure. Peter Blake, the director of SCHEV, also recently shared three key tactics: keep students enrolled and engaged, keep postsecondary affordable, and align programs to workforce needs.

In 2021, Governor Northam and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed and funded legislation (SB 1405 Saslaw) that created the G3 (Get Skilled, Get a Job, Get Ahead) program to accelerate talent development in high-demand fields. G3 provides tuition assistance for qualified low and middle-income students seeking postsecondary attainment at a VA community college in the fields of IT, Public Safety, Healthcare, Skilled Trades, Construction & Manufacturing, and Early Childhood Education. The early returns on the General Assembly’s investment are positive, with the vast majority of completers seeing substantial wage gains with newly acquired credential(s).

The Commonwealth should continue its robust investment in G3 and other innovative programs. Funding paid apprenticeships is another Senate budget priority that enables Virginians to develop their skills and feed their families.

Pivoting back to the budget and the Special Session, Senate Democrats continue to fight for priorities that make real differences in our daily lives. Likewise, our local governments need to know what aid to localities will look like when developing their budgets.

Virginia has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. The reason we have record tax revenues is because business and industry are strong in Virginia… and they are strong because of sound fiscal policy and continuing investments in public K12 and higher education.

Senate priorities include funding raises for teachers, law enforcement, and public employees. Virginia competes with other states in the region as well as industry sectors when attempting to attract and retain the best in public service fields. The Capitol and State Police Departments are struggling to fill their vacancies, potentially compromising public safety.

Coronavirus attacked us both physically and mentally. Long before it made its presence felt, we were facing a mental health crises. It’s been exacerbated during the pandemic and manifests in many forms including an opioid epidemic. Funding social services and keeping Virginians healthy is long overdue.

Another issue of contention is the gas tax. Governor Youngkin has proposed suspending the gas tax for 90 days. As someone who has been in the service station industry for decades, I can assure you that John and Jane Q. Virginian will not see significant savings. What they will see is decreased bus and rail service, more potholes, more congestion, and a generally more miserable travel experience. The Governor himself admitted on March 30 that a gas tax suspension won’t guarantee savings for consumers. This is a deal breaker in our ongoing negotiations.

Completing the work of the Special Session is essential to keep Virginia functioning seamlessly.

Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at district35@senate.virginia.gov.