Welcome to Spring! I hope you have been enjoying the lovely weather recently and are able to spend some time outdoors after this long winter. And, at the same time I know many of you have been glued to your televisions watching March Madness—the NCAA basketball men’s and women’s tournaments. It’s a crazy fun time and it is good to see some of Virginia’s schools participate. Our General Assembly usually is finished by tournament time, but this year we are in our very own “overtime.” Indeed, we adjourned last week but without finishing our budget and with a few bills yet to be voted upon out of their respective conference committees.
Each year, following a six-week reprieve after the adjournment of the regular General Assembly session, the Delegates and Senators are called back to Richmond to consider the Governor’s amendments and vetoes to legislation. This year’s reconvene session will begin on Wednesday, April 27. But, before that happens we have much work yet to do.
As I wrote in my column last week, the Governor and his legislative staff work diligently to act on each bill passed by the General Assembly during the session before the deadline at midnight on April 11th, 2022. During this time, the Governor’s office is also arranging and participating in ceremonial bill signings with members of the General Assembly. It is always an honor to be invited to participate in these momentous occasions as legislation is signed into law and I am hoping that the Governor will include me too as I have 11 bills for him to sign.
Because the General Assembly adjourned without finalizing the new biennial budget, the Chairs of House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Appropriations, Delegate Knight and Senator Howell, will use this time to work with the budget conferees on budget negotiations. At some point in the coming weeks, and likely ahead of the reconvene session, the Governor will call the General Assembly back to Richmond to vote to approve the final budget. Remember, the Senate would not agree to extend the session to complete budget work, instead authorizing a special budget session. The biggest sticking point is that the Senate budget includes a repeal of the state grocery sales tax and makes the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refundable. But, the House and the Governor want to include ending the 1% local sales tax on groceries which funds schools and transportation at a cost of $1 billion a year. And, the House budget does not include the EITC refund.
We are already one of the lowest tax states in the country, but we rely on a more regressive sales tax and a flat income tax so the people earning the least are paying the biggest percentage of their income. The EITC refund helps lower-wage earners the most. What the Governor proposed is to double the standard deduction for everyone at a $2 billion a year cost to the general fund. And, he is now calling for a gas tax “holiday” for a number of months that would have little to no effect on what we pay at the pump, but would have a very big impact on our transit budget, including road construction and maintenance.
While I am supportive of targeted relief such as making the EITC refundable and cutting the sales tax on groceries, which I voted for, I am concerned that these other expansive new tax cuts are not as critical right now as focusing on other big-ticket items like school construction. Both the House and Senate include school construction funding, but a meager amount considering the scale of the problem — which could be as high as $25 billion! Yes, you read that right. We have over 1,000 public school buildings that are at least half a century old and each new school costs over $25 million to build. And yet, the budgets propose around $500 million, which is a drop in the proverbial bucket when you look at what is needed. This is an enormous problem that cannot continue to be left solely to the localities. There are other pressing needs too, like providing real teacher pay increases not tied to the education funding formula, so Fairfax County could increase teacher salaries by 5% without having to pay 80% of it, which is the case now because the state would only pay about 20% under the formula. Getting these tax cuts right and investing in education are both critically important for the budget conferees.
Also continued to the special session were many bills in conference that did not have finalized reports by adjournment. In this interim period, legislators like me will likely meet and make decisions on how to move forward on these bills. For example, my bill HB 764 on regulating poker tournaments for charitable gaming is one of these bills. Its cognate, Senator Bell’s SB 394, was already sent to the Governor for consideration, as it passed both bodies before my version did. I favor his version of the bill, so I may choose to defer to SB 394 and allow my bill to die.
During this overtime period many General Assembly members take this opportunity back in their districts to connect with constituents, hold town hall meetings, and attend many community events. In the week I have been back from Richmond, I have attended a few community events including an exciting tour of the soon-to-open Lee District Community Center and the first game of a little league team I am sponsoring. Of course, I am also using this time to catch up on my full-time job as a charity attorney and I spent some quality time with my daughter as I drove her back to college after spring break