Commentary, Guest Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

We are now nine months into his term and Governor Youngkin continues his disparagement of the Commonwealth in an attempt to position himself for an even higher office. I would submit it’s time to move forward, lead, and unite Virginians.

There’s no doubt in my mind our world was turned upside down as we navigated the unchartered waters of a worldwide pandemic that claimed more than 1 million American lives, shuttered our schools and businesses, and changed how and where we work. On the plus side, the pandemic also brought scientific advancements to combat the virus if not to minimize its stranglehold on our lives and economic wellbeing.

Looking at Virginia’s economy, there is a good news story. Year to date, we have seen 16 percent growth in FY 2022 revenue in the Commonwealth. The unemployment rate is at 2.7 percent — well below the national average. Since January, more than 100,000 jobs have been created and people are securing higher wages due to increased demand for their talent. Our coveted Triple-A bond rating still holds.

Addressing the joint money committees on August 15, Governor Youngkin made several references to previous administrations often at the expense of our well managed Commonwealth.  This is a page right out of the national Republican playbook intended to divide rather than unite this country. It fits with the governor’s aspirations as well as the “back to the future” governing he is practicing. 

Further, he neglected to mention a previous president who suggested drinking Clorox as a cure for Covid while sending “relief checks” to most Americans regardless of need. Also missing were the facts that federal money has supplemented local government spending, gas prices have fallen sharply, and public schools still need our attention

To be fair, somewhere in the fine print of that speech we learned that unplanned revenues plus unspent appropriations equal a $3.2 billion cash surplus. By law, a General Fund cash surplus is fully committed or assigned on the balance sheet. Disagreeing with the law doesn’t mean it is nullified. This deduction comes with experience and historical insight.

There are several contributing factors driving the surplus. Our region is home to several industries that were able to quickly pivot to “work from home” and excel. We have experienced wage growth and change in the job mix. At the same time, realizing capital gains from a bullish stock market, Virginians find themselves more liquid and able to spend more on consumer goods, fueling economic growth.

Additionally, corporate profitability is strong.

It is important to reiterate that existing law and previous policies legislated by the General Assembly dictate the basis for the budget. Those principals require us to be judicious with our spending while we pay as we go. Going forward, expect to see $1 billion earmarked for tax rebates. The Rainy Day Fund (Revitalization Fund) will see hundreds of millions of dollars added. We are also committed to allocating more than $500 million for VRS, the widening of I-64, covering capital project overruns, and economic development investments such as the Amazon HQ2 project in Arlington included in the signed budget. I haven’t heard anyone complain about these future expenditures.

While slipping slightly, Virginia was cited as #5 in the country as a good place to live, work and raise a family by Wallet Hub. 52 factors were considered including housing costs, income growth, education rate and quality of hospitals. Additional metrics were evaluated that included law-enforcement employees per capita, the number of bike trails, job opportunities, food insecurity, and general tax friendliness, among many others. No doubt about it, we have work to do to bring the Commonwealth back to its elite status.

That will require crossing the aisle, assessing what worked in the past, and looking forward to the future.
Our kids have started their academic years and are physically back in their classrooms albeit with staffing challenges in the classroom. It is often cited as a major contributor to the tsunami of people leaving the teaching profession. As previously noted, in the new biennial budget we moved the needle considerably for teacher pay, invested heavily in modernizing facilities, and made adjustments for the learning gap that has resulted from the pandemic.
Despite various obstacles, many localities showed improvement on 2022 SOL results. Falls Church City Public Schools led the Commonwealth with a first or second place ranking for five key subjects. This is no small accomplishment, and we should be commending the teachers, students, and their families. Academic equity across zip codes remains a challenge but is not insurmountable. Let’s capitalize on the successes.