The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, The Mt. Vernon Voice and The Potomac-Stafford Local in the week of February 16, 2016.
The Senate Budget Emerges
This week, the seventh of this session of the Virginia General Assembly, both the Senate and House of Delegates are considering the state’s two-year budget. After each house passes a budget, a joint conference committee resolves the differences. The Senate budget has good news and bad news.Good NewsRevenues have increased more than expenses for the first time in seven years, offering opportunities to address unmet needs. The Senate Budget makes significant investments in education including an additional $80 million for Fairfax County, $32 million for Prince William County and $22 million for Stafford County over last year’s appropriations including $16 million for a program called “Cost to Compete” which is supplemental funding for high-cost areas like Northern Virginia to pay teachers and support staff. The plan also includes a two-percent salary increase for all elementary-secondary school teachers.The budget increases funds for our state colleges and universities by $223 million, increases student financial aid and limits tuition increases to three percent. The Senate budget has about $1.4 billion in construction projects, including $350 million to modernize the Port of Virginia, construct college buildings and renovate state park facilities.It adds over 800 “waiver” slots due to the closure of Virginia’s training centers and an additional 400 new slots for adults with developmental disabilities so they can receive needed services.The Senate budget begins the closures of Virginia’s Juvenile Detention facilities, adds 11 new mental health positions in probation offices and provides $2.5 million for mental health pilot projects in our jails. It also funds one new General District Court judge position in Prince William County and one Circuit Court spot in Stafford County.The Senate budget includes my amendment to increase funds for court-appointed criminal attorney by $1.2 million, the first increase since the program’s inception.It also includes funds to keep down costs at Dulles Airport and to begin planning the widening Interstate 66.Bad NewsA major disappointment to me is the omission of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed Medicaid expansion, to provide health care to more low-income and disabled people. Rejecting Medicaid and the available federal funding represent legislative malpractice, but the votes simply are not there to pass it.Second, the budget fails to fund three desperately needed Fairfax County judgeship positions – Circuit, General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Fewer judges means more delays in access to justice.Unfortunately, the Senate budget also cuts capital improvements to Widewater State Park. This desperately needed project would create the only public access to the Potomac River in Stafford County.I am working hard to pass a budget that addresses our needs and to get my bills passed by the mid-March adjournment. Please share your views and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.