On March 10th, the 2018 legislative session adjourned sine die - meaning that the regular session is now in the history books. While much was accomplished, one major issue remains unresolved. Unfortunately, the House and the Senate budget conferees were not able to agree on our biennial budget.
The impasse is primarily because of the debate over Medicaid expansion, which is included in the House budget but not the Senate budget. What made negotiations even more difficult is the fact that Medicaid expansion frees up about $422 million since federal money would supplant state money for many existing health care services. This means that in addition to the Medicaid policy debate, many items that are in the House budget (such as a 2% salary increase for state employees, the state's share of a 2% salary increase for teachers, and additional funding for higher education financial assistance) are not included in the Senate budget.
The next step is for the General Assembly to reconvene in a special session. This will give the conferees a chance to continue negotiations over the next few months.
Metro is a critical part of our region's transportation infrastructure. While the system has had its management struggles, it is still important to ensure that long-deferred capital maintenance issues are addressed. On the last day of the session, the General Assembly adopted the first-ever dedicated funding source for Metro. The legislation (HB1539) will generate $154 million annually to fulfill Virginia's share of the $500 million in capital upgrades that the system needs. The funding is contingent on Maryland and D.C. paying their fair share. The bill also gets the ball rolling on much needed reforms to Metro's operating structure.
I will admit that HB1539, as it came out of conference, was a bit hard to swallow since in my opinion it diverts too much from our existing regional transportation funds that are needed for other high priority projects. However, it was important to pass the measure as a signal to our regional partners that we are serious about fixing Metro. Hopefully the Governor will see fit to recommend amendments that will improve the bill.
Teacher Shortage and Protecting Student Information
So what on Earth do these have in common? They are the subjects of two conference committees I was appointed to this session to resolve differences between the House and the Senate.
Virginia is facing a severe teacher shortage. Based on statistics from our Department of Education, teacher vacancies have increased by 40% in the last decade. More than 1,000 teaching positions remained unfilled two months into the 2016 school year, the last year where data has been fully analyzed. The issue involves both recruitment and retention. I was pleased to work with Delegate Steve Landes, the Chairman of the Education Committee, to craft a bill addressing the recruitment side. HB1125 streamlines the teacher licensure process - while being careful to not diminishing the quality of Virginia's education system. Of particular focus are individuals who are interested in being teachers after serving in other professions. After fighting off a nefarious Senate amendment, the bill passed with broad stakeholder support. Next year we can hopefully make more progress on the retention side of the issue.
Another issue we tackled is how to protect student personal information - both at the K-12 and higher education levels. While student information is protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the law allows "directory information," which can include emails, telephone numbers, and home addresses, to be released in bulk to outside organizations. After several meetings, we were able to come up with amendments to HB1 that I think strike the right balance. While the information can still be used internally for educational purposes, outside organizations will no longer be able to obtain emails, telephone numbers, and home addresses without the student's consent. The bill ultimately passed both the House and the Senate.
Hand-Held Cell Phone Ban
Not all bills survive the conference committee process. One of the most frequent comments I receive from constituents is in support of a hand-held cell phone ban (I agree, by the way). This year, legislation (HB181) was introduced to strengthen Virginia's distracted driving laws. When the bill went over to the Senate, they slapped on an amendment to make Virginia hands-free. This sent the bill into conference. Alas, when conferees cannot agree, the bill dies. And so was the case for HB181.
My Legislative Initiatives
Thirteen of my bills passed the General Assembly. Highlights include closing a loophole in our law to better protect students from sexual predators (HB150), establishing a public input process for state regulatory guidelines (HB297), expanding electric vehicle charging station infrastructure (HB922), and providing more transparency when purchasing property in a homeowner association (HB923). I was also the chief co-patron of successful legislation to reduce the fee for placing a security freeze on a consumer credit report (HB1027). Finally, Virginia is facing an economic competitiveness crisis as thousands of industrial and skilled trade jobs go unfilled. I worked with a diverse range of stakeholders to pass legislation (HB632) aimed at exposing students to these career opportunities and giving them the tools to follow up on interest through apprenticeships and industry certifications. Click here to see all of my legislation.
Thank you to all of my constituents who advocated on issues this session, whether it was by phone, email, letter, or a personal visit to Richmond. Several photos from these visits are on my Facebook page. Finally, many thanks to those who completed my 2018 survey! We had over 820 responses. Click here to see the results.
As always, it is an honor to serve our community!