We have good and bad days down here at the General Assembly. Yesterday was one of those really good days. The reason it was a really good day is because we dealt with the most important thing we do down here that probably affects every Virginian and that is our two year budget. Another reason it was a good day was because we had a very civil discourse, people had a chance to air their feelings on both sides, and the bill passed with 79 out of l00 votes. I want to personally thank the one-third of the folks on the other side of the aisle that supported the bill. But I also want to thank those who opposed the bill. Because, as the Minority Leader said, the other side was given ample opportunity to give their input, and ample opportunity to discuss the budget. He even said that it gives us a roadmap to get to where we (the Democrats) want to go. The gentleman from Fairfax, Mr. Sickles, said in the paper as only he can say it, “I think the no votes were not super hard no votes,” and in fairness to him, he went on to say his biggest problem was the issue of transportation in the budget.
Why was this budget so good? Because it helps all the people that we care so much about from our police and sheriffs that make our communities safe to our teachers, our college students, our K-12 kids, all 1.2 million of them, and those that are helped by our health care safety net, especially those who are near and dear to our heart, those with intellectual disabilities.
Let me quickly once again give you some highlights of the budget, because this is the most important thing we do. In K-12, we included $l57.2 million more in spending than the introduced budget. Funding for the inflation update and K-3 class size reduction were included. My favorite program, early reading intervention, was funded. As a high school teacher, I understand that reading comprehension is absolutely crucial to student success. Yesterday Delegate Greason offered the floor amendment that dealt partially with the restoration of cost of competing funds, which is important to many delegates from Northern Virginia.
Higher education, the subcommittee I chaired for the last two years, has $200 million more for college education, but it is more than just the money- it is the accountability that was built into that particular piece. I ran into a college president last Wednesday night, and I heard something I thought I would never hear. He said this is the best budget he had seen in the last ten years for higher education. And why is that so? The Governor laid out a vision of 100,000 new degrees and this budget makes substantial progress toward that end. I know that Delegates Hugo and Albo have talked so much about access for our Virginia kids to college. That’s what we are all about— 1,700 new slots, substantial progress toward those new slots— we put in the money for those, for University of Virginia, William and Mary, Virginia Tech, and James Madison. That doesn’t work for all universities— one of our goals has to be retention, helping our students get through college and get a degree on time. That will lower their debt, and help their retention. Finally, we have to make college affordable for every kid. This money is going to keep tuition increases down to 2 to 3 percent this year. That is a goal we have not seen in a long time.
Let me shift quickly to health care. The health care safety net is of big concern on both sides of the aisle. We have included $6.2 million to restore funding for free clinics. We also included funding for our hospitals and our nursing homes. We also included money for 200 new ID and 50 DD waivers.
Public safety. Talk about a core function of government, there is nothing more core than that. Bills such as 5 year minimum mandatory sentences for repeat drug dealers — you have to fund those in the budget, and this budget funds those. Sheriffs, who are essential to public safety, receive $7.4 million in new funding and receive a 2% pay increase. For our state police, we filled 40 vacant positions and created a 43 person sexual predator surveillance unit.
Our farmers and agribusinesses are certainly dear to many of our hearts. The whole farming community does so much for our economy. Delegate Landes put together a key bill that establishes a Governor’s opportunity fund for agriculture, and our budget includes funding for that program. Soil and water conservation districts—a small item, but could not be more important if you want to get your best management practices on the ground.
I could go on and on, but let me comment very quickly on the other side of the Capitol, their budget. Of course, I like ours a lot better. What I find interesting is that they chose not to include the transportation funding. I fundamentally don’t agree with that stand, but I know it’s a stand a lot of folks on the other side of the aisle take. So, if you think of it from the Democrat perspective, the Senate budget is pretty ideal.
So what’s my message? We need a budget, and we need a budget now. We have got fifteen days left to do the most important thing this House does. The Speaker just named the conferees. The conferees are ready to go to work– and a lot of the rest of you who want to be conferees are ready to go to work too– but this is day one of our opportunity to get a budget passed.
To my friends across the aisle– please join with us and continue working with us to help make sure the Democrats in the other body come to their senses and understand that we need to finish the number one job we are all sent to Richmond to do— adopting a new state budget before the end of the Session.
We owe it to all Virginians– our teachers, our tuition paying parents, our public safety workers– not to jeopardize their future, their livelihood, and their quality of life by not getting to work now to pass a budget. We owe it to them, and all Virginians, not to harm, but to help families, workers, and businesses when they are already struggling enough with anxiety about the economy and our future.
We owe it to all Virginians not to let some put partisan politics ahead of doing what’s best for all Virginians– which first and foremost means passing the Session’s most important bill, the state budget.