Last month I spent some time in this column discussing K-12 education and new pathways to college and careers for our Commonwealth’s high school students. This month we turn our focus to higher education.
We are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week in Virginia. I join the Governor and Secretary Anne Holton in applauding those dedicated to Virginia’s children and molding them into their best. Thank you for your commitment to excellence, your patience and your perseverance. The adopted biennial budget is a step in the right direction for teacher compensation and education in general. It’s long overdue but sets the priority for future funding.
“I’m proud that we have sustained every veto to come before the Senate since the start of Gov. McAuliffe’s term — but these bills should never have been introduced in the first place,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
The biggest by-product from this year’s session is a new biennial budget. And without a doubt, this is the best biennial budget we have seen in some time. Growing revenues allowed legislators to make critical investments in our workforce, public education and higher education.
We are moving toward adjournment in a rapid stride to the finish. March 12 is the scheduled close of the 2016 General Assembly. Many bills are waiting to be voted on, and the debates continue in committee and on the floor. Reconciling the amendments to the budget bill are the top priority these days.
The Collaborative Jobs Development Act — patroned by Sen. Frank Ruff and Sen. Dick Saslaw in the Senate and Del. Tim Hugo, Del. Matthew James and Del. Randy Minchew in the House — encourages collaboration rather than competition on economic development.
Look for the budget to dominate the debate for the duration of the session. In December, Governor McAuliffe presented his biennial budget of $106 billion over two fiscal years to the General Assembly. The legislature has now submitted budget amendments exceeding $2.3 billion related to the general fund. The heavy work is in front of us as we reconcile priorities. Both the House of Delegates and the Senate must ultimately vote on a two year spending plan. According to Virginia’s Constitution, the biennial budget must balance.
But Senator Dick Saslaw points out that the governor was just enforcing a law that enjoyed bi-partisan support when the legislature approved it.
“I got news for you. Y’all voted for that law," he told colleagues on the Senate floor. "Well not you all," he added, " but the people who were here before you. They voted for it. They had to have the same requirements we had.”
And Saslaw notes some states that enjoyed reciprocity have done a poor job of screening those who got concealed carry permits.
“Apparently Florida, as of 2006, had already handed out 1,400 concealed weapon permits to citizens who had criminal records – 218 outstanding warrants including 14 wanted for murder.”
Saslaw spoke to the terrible irony of opposition to the extension of the Affordable Care Act to Medicaid in Virginia, something the Republicans in rural parts of the state, in particular, have been responsible for. In the poorest parts of the state, where these Republicans hold sway, the life expectancy is 65 compared to 81 in Northern Virginia, Saslaw said, adding that 20 percent of babies in the rural areas are born with opiate addictions, a third of the population smokes in Grundy and Buchanan counties and 40 to 50 percent of adults are “morbidly obese.”
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