How Much Have We Lost?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Weekly Column: Budget Tweaks, Execution Secrecy and Ethics

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of March 2, 2015.
Budget Tweaks, Execution Secrecy and Ethics
In the last week of the recent General Assembly session, we passed a budget and some of the most contentious legislation of the session.  We actually adjourned one day early on Friday, the first session in the six regular sessions in which I have served that has finished early.
 
Here's a quick rundown on several bills:
 
Four of my bills passed both houses and are with the Governor for his action.  I described them in my column last week.  I hope they will be signed into law without any amendments.

We approved amendments to our biennial budget that  includes money to fund the state’s share of a 1.5% raise for teachers, a 2% raise for state employees and a 2% raise for college faculty.  Many of these employees have shad only one raise in the last seven years.
 
The budget also endorses Governor McAuliffe’s new plan to provide mental health services to 21,600 Virginians with serious mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders who are at 60% of federal poverty level. 
 
We prepaid $129 million for a constitutionally-required Rainy Day Fund deposit and restored about $41.5 million to higher education that was cut earlier in the year because of the economic downturn.  We also provided $106 million for construction for new buildings at various colleges, including James Madison University, Virginia Tech, Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Radford University and funds to restore the historic rotunda at the University of Virginia. 
 
The budget also makes a $129 million one-time payment to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) to reduce our unfunded liability.  This will also reduce required contributions from local governments that are largely funded by real estate property taxes. 
 
The budget also includes my proposal to restore one General District Court Judgeship to Fairfax County, a position that is desperately needed.
 
Gaping Holes
The legislature did not expand Medicaid as authorized by the Affordable Care Act.   To me, this omission is legislative malpractice.  As of today, Virginia has left $1.8 billion in federal funds on the table.  By next year, this will be the equivalent of $40 million in the 44th Delegate District alone or about 500 per constituent or about $2,000 for each four-person family I represent.  We have lost about 400 jobs in the 44th District and health care coverage for about 5,000 people.
 
In addition, this budget fails to adequately fund education or address our unfair education funding formula, despite my efforts.  Virginia also still has a $15 billion unfunded liability in the Virginia Retirement System (VRS).  The legislature also failed to repeal or correct dozens of ineffective tax credits and tax preferences for things like coal, yachts and private schools.  Virginia also still has $100 billion transportation capital shortfall over the next 20 years.  These are some of the reasons that I voted “no.” 
 
Transparency
This year, the Department of Corrections pressed legislation to exempt the entire execution process from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  I fought this effort and killed the legislation in a bipartisan coalition of 33 Democrats, 27 Republicans and one independent.  Execution is the last thing that should be shrouded in secrecy. 
 
Finally, on the last day, the legislature sent “ethics” legislation to the Governor.  I voted “yes” on the final bill, but I was anything but happy with it.  The bill did include my proposal to limit gifts and political contributions during the Governor’s Opportunity Fund process, but it is riddled with problems. 
 
First, although the bill lowered Virginia’s gift cap to $100, it deleted the $250 aggregate gift cap, so now elected officials can accept an unlimited number of gifts under $100 from the same donor.
 
The also bill lacks a real enforcement mechanism.  There are no mandatory audits. There is no independent ethics commission and the new ethics committee has no subpoena power.  Stronger ethics laws are essentially meaningless if they cannot be enforced.  
 
You can see my floor speeches on ethics, death penalty secrecy and the state budget on my You Tube channel.  Thank you for all of your feedback and suggestions.  It is an honor to serve as your delegate.  I hope you will continue to be in touch at scott@scottsurovell.org.
 

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