Message from Chris With temperatures making it feel more like May than February, members of the House of Delegates didn’t get to spend much time outdoors. This week, we had some of the longest days of the session, completing our work on all bills filed by delegates and approving a package of amendments to the 2008-2010 Biennial Budget. That made for some particularly long days spent indoors, specifically in the House Chamber.
This week marked the deadline for both the House and the Senate to complete work on their respective plans to amend Virginia’s existing budget. While both bodies introduced their plans earlier in the week, only the House approved a spending plan. The Senate decided not to vote on its own version of the budget. They will instead wait for the House’s plan to arrive and amend it.
Considering the challenges of the current economic downturn, the House’s plan made significant improvements on the cuts proposed by Governor Kaine in December. The primary goal of the plan is to balance the budget, end earmarks, protect core services, and enact policies that put us back on the road to economic recovery. The plan achieves those goals, and then some.
The House plan speeds up the timeline for five major state colleges and university construction projects, which are estimated to aid in creating 3,400 new jobs. Since dollars spent promoting tourism have consistently shown one of the strongest returns on investment, one of the amendments made by the House provides an additional $3 million in funding to help enhance the vitality of this key component of our economy. And, we restored $500,000 to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to help them market Virginia’s #1 ranking as the best place in America for businesses to do business.
We also worked to mitigate the effects of Governor Kaine’s cuts to education. The package of amendments we approved included the Teacher and Support Staff Enhanced Retirement Incentive Plan, which will help local school divisions retain young teachers, reducing the possibility of layoffs. We also restored $50 million of the cuts proposed by Governor Kaine to higher education. And to make it possible for more Virginia students to attend our state-supported colleges and universities, we structured $12.5 million for enrollment growth requiring a higher percentage of in-state students.
The House plan also makes mental health care a priority, providing $1.5 million for early intervention services for developmentally delayed children, including those with autism and autism-spectrum disorders. We also voted to restore the 200 Mental Retardation (MR) waiver slots that the Governor proposed to cut, and also increased by another 200 the number of MR waivers available in 2010. This decision was the latest in a continuing effort by House Republicans to fund and strengthen the MR Waiver program, which is a home and community based program that funds services to help individuals with intellectual disability remain in the community and avoid institutional care.
Since public safety remains a top priority, the plan approved by the House rejects Governor Kaine’s risky scheme to provide early release for certain felons. In addition, the plan offsets a portion of the Kaine Administration’s proposed cuts by restoring over $9 million to sheriffs and commonwealth’s attorneys, all of whom are on the front lines in the battle to keep Virginia’s families, neighborhoods and businesses safe.
Most impressively, the House approved its package of amendments by an 88 to 11 margin, with the win plan winning strong bipartisan support.
The House Gives Back
Valentine’s Day causes many offices in the General Assembly to decorate, usually in a way that would please your local Hallmark store. But this year, many house staffers got involved in additional charitable activities. As a result, fundraising efforts in the building collected more than $6400 for the Richmond Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Also, there was a big drive for the Central Virginia Food Bank that netted a lot of food donations and over $1000 in cash donations.
Appreciating that the gift of sight is precious, State Delegate Chris Peace introduced legislation to protect and advance the delivery of vision care services in Virginia. Local area doctors of optometry brought to the Delegate’s attention concern that illegal sale of cosmetic contact lenses by beauty parlors and flea markets were causing sight threatening eye infections, corneal abrasions, and corneal ulcers. The unsuspecting consumer wanting to change the color of their eyes did not realize that even cosmetic contacts require an eye doctor to determine the proper fit and type of contact lens, in addition to providing training on proper contact lens care. Cosmetic contact lenses sold by untrained professionals has caused an increase in these sight threatening problems.
Delegate Peace’s sight preservation bill also includes a provision so that doctors of optometry may provide patients with the newest technological advancements in treating eye disease. As an example, in the near future, it is expected that the FDA will approve a contact lens which includes medication in the special type of contact lenses to treat ocular allergies.
The legislation passed the Virginia General Assembly, and is now on the way to Governor.
It doesn’t matter how busy the week gets, it’s always a good time to see smiling faces from home. This week was no different. I was visited by Dreama Chandler from the Virginia Association of Volunteer Firefighters, Tom Simcoe of New Kent, Virginia Board from Mechanicsville representing Dominion Power, Rich Shelton and Gay Brooks form Cumberland Hospital in New Kent, SharaLynn Oxendine and Ellie St. John of the Virginia Production Alliance, Kristie Helmick from Mechanicsville and fellow Sorensen Alum.
Although the session is winding down, we never tire of visitors. If you’ll be visiting the Capitol before the end of session, make sure to stop by our office, 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. Or, if you just want me to know your opinion on a particular issue, you can call on the toll-free Constituent Viewpoint Hotline at 1.800.889.0229.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s column, and there’ll be more news from the Capitol next week.