Commentary, Guest Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

On January 11, the General Assembly convened in Richmond to take up legislative matters and make adjustments to Virginia’s biennial budget. The pace has been intense with subcommittees and full committees beginning as early as 7 a.m. and running well past dinner time.

Governor Youngkin set a contentious tone for the session this past December when he presented his amendments to the biennial spending plan. Trying to circumvent the committee process, he proposed language in the budget to greatly restrict a woman’s access to healthcare as well as criminalize providers for the procedure of terminating a pregnancy. This mirrors the Supreme Court’s decision to upend the right to reproductive freedom as defined in the half-century old decision Roe v. Wade. Numerous Republican legislators have introduced bills on the most intimate and difficult decision a woman must make. To date, my Democratic colleagues in the Senate have held the line on ensuring reproductive autonomy. Additional key measures on this subject have passed the Senate and are headed to the House.

Gun violence is a societal plague that encompasses many issues with no easy fix. Mass shootings are happening almost daily in a variety of settings. While some will spew second amendment rhetoric, an undeniable solution to abating the human carnage is keeping guns out of the wrong hands. Proper safe storage of weapons would go a long way in keeping loaded handguns out of reach. Our classrooms and campuses should be places of learning, not a shooting range full of defenseless victims. SB 1181 (banning the sale of unserialized firearms) and SB 1192 (prohibiting the carrying of assault weapons in public) have passed the Senate.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee is finishing its review of proposals affecting state spending as it prepares to deliver its updates to the biennial budget. During the pandemic, we revisited Virginia’s spending plan and “unallocated” approved appropriations to ensure structural integrity in the budget. Expenses were trimmed, and monies moved to housing and utility assistance to shore up Virginians who were out of work. Investments were redirected towards healthcare providers. Vaccines were developed and moved into communities without cost. While certain sectors of the economy seamlessly performed from home, there were others that went dark, forcing adjustments to revenue forecasts. Additionally, Virginia received a huge infusion of federal money in the form of PPP. This backstory from the previous biennium laid the foundation for the current spending plan and the proposed amendments now under consideration.

In short, Virginia’s economy continues to improve, buttressed by low unemployment rates. At the same time nearly every profession and most businesses are experiencing a staffing shortage. Public education has played a significant role in providing that trained workforce through appropriate investments in our children’s future as well as the people providing high-demand services. We continue to limit tuition at our colleges and universities, but it is still a student financial burden because we have not been able to meet remaining needs for our students. We are in a mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic and manifesting in many ways amid all age groups. Tackling this public health issue is long overdue and will require major infusions of funding for professional training, appropriate treatment plans, placements, and getting to the root causes of the ongoing opioid epidemic ravaging our communities. The list is long and being carefully prioritized as we weigh the Governor’s recommendations and economic indicators.

I have learned a lot of things during my many years in public service, including the benefits of a collective revenue stream that enhances our quality of life. It is nearly impossible to make measurable change without a long-term vision for the future. We must structure a realistic and balanced budget going forward in this biennium.