This year’s General Assembly began with all of the customary events taking place. Legislators reacquainted themselves with their surroundings, sharing details with their fellow members about important bills and news from home. On opening day, Governor Kaine delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address with all of the usual ceremony. But although much was similar to past sessions, there are a lot of differences this year. Obvious to everyone, some of the big differences involve the current economic climate and its effects on state government. Our economy is in recession and the state budget is experiencing a shortfall. Legislators are examining ways to make the recession both short and shallow. And, we’re working on closing a budget shortfall that Governor Kaine says is $2.9 billion.
For the House of Delegates, the challenge of the task at hand is not the only difference this year. There are several major changes to House operations. For starters, Delegates are dealing with the first-ever limit on the number of bills they can introduce. Limiting bills is common for other state legislatures, but Virginia has never attempted one. As it turns out, this may have been the ideal year to attempt such a limit. By doing so, the House can integrate some other reforms.
This year, votes made by delegates in subcommittees will be available online through the Legislative Information System. In previous years, the number of bills and resolutions submitted (often numbering in the thousands) made posting information on legislation at every juncture of the process a daunting task. With the new bill limit, that change is now a reality.
The House has also cut its operating budget by 15% this year, finding savings in every nook and cranny available. But in examining ways to cut its own budget, the House found an affordable way put its session online for viewing by the general public. So, you can now go online at the General Assembly’s website (http://legis.state.va.us) to view House floor sessions.
The House of Delegates considers an average of about two thousand bills and resolutions every year. To manage this workload in the sixty days allowed under the Constitution of Virginia, the House has fourteen standing committees to process legislation. This year, I have been appointed to serve on four committees. Speaker Howell appointed me to serve on the Health, Welfare and Institutions, Finance, Courts of Justice and Science & Technology committees. I have also been appointed as a Deputy Whip.
The budget shortfall will remain the focus of most news accounts coming from Richmond this year. Ordinarily when you hear about a state budget shortfall, it means Virginia’s government does not have as much money as it thought it would. This year, it’s different. Because of the housing slump, job losses, and reductions in consumer spending, Virginia is receiving less in revenues from the real estate, income tax, and sales taxes. As a result, the Commonwealth will have much less than it had last year.
Most often, two options are touted to resolve budget shortfalls: raising taxes or cutting spending. Of these, raising taxes is especially perilous in recessions. When government takes more money from people in the form of higher taxes, families have less money to spend. With less money to spend, families buy less, and when families buy less, recessions get worse.
That leaves cutting spending as the lesser of two difficult options. Looking for savings in government isn’t always easy. But there may be more opportunities for reducing spending in Virginia’s budget than in other states. The National Association of State Budget Officers lists Virginia as one of the top five states in spending growth over the last decade. All totaled, Virginia’s budget has more than doubled in a decade, handily outpacing population and inflation.
As required by Virginia’s constitution, Governor Kaine has already proposed his ideas for cutting spending. Now, the responsibility of acting on those proposals and considering other ideas falls to the General Assembly. That task will be the primary preoccupation of this year’s session.
My legislative assistant, Julie Coggsdale, is staffing our office here in Richmond, located in Room 715 of the General Assembly Building. You can contact us here by sending an e-mail to Delcpeace@house.virginia.gov or by sending a letter to me at PO Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218-0406. If you just want to be sure I know how you feel about a particular issue being considered during this General Assembly session, you can call on the toll-free Constituent Viewpoint Hotline at 1.800.889.0229. There, you can leave your message about a bill and it will be promptly forwarded to my office.
Friendly faces from home are always a welcome sight here in Richmond, so if you’re planning to visit the Capitol between now and early March, please be sure to stop by our office. Despite the record breaking cold snap, try to stay warm and enjoy the week. Look for more news from Richmond in this same place next week.