2016 General Assembly Wrap-Up
The 2016 General Assembly session was a budget year. This means that we tackled how to fund the needs of the commonwealth for the next two years. I am extremely proud of the budget that we have put forth because it is a structurally balanced budget that will cover our needs, without imposing anymore stress on the wallets of Virginia tax payers. That’s right our budget does not include any new taxes or fee increase on the good people of Virginia. It was my esteemed pleasure to be a conferee on the budget, which meant that I was able to address the concerns of all my constituents as the budget was being negotiated.
One of the themes for this budget was looking ahead. That is why this budget will deposit $605 million into the state’s rainy day fund. This is going to restore the fund to 90% of its previous balance. At the end of this two year plan the fund will have $845 million. It is extremely prudent to set this money aside for any unforeseen events that could occur in either the near or distant future, and I am thrilled to have been a part of securing this safety net.
Continuing with the idea of looking ahead we made sure that this budget is going to fund the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) at 100% of the board certified rate. This means that we are fulfilling our requirement two years in advance of when we had to. That’s just a clear example of how efficient our state is at addressing the issues that we have. I have to give credit where it is due, and extend my approval to the House of Delegates, which first proposed fully funding the VRS back in November of 2015 before the governor’s budget was even released they were hard at work secure these funds. We have also accelerated the $189.5 million repayment to VRS for a contribution rate deferral in 2010. What that means for you is that we are saving $44 million per year moving forward.
We are also eliminating the Accelerated Sales Tax on over 90% of businesses by the end of the fiscal year for 2018. This is going to be money that goes back into the pockets of business owners, which they can use to keep their business operating smoothly. Along with this our budget proposes a bond package of roughly $2.1 billion this is smaller than the $2.4 that was proposed in the governor’s budget proposal. This money was cut out of the final product because we do not want to borrow anymore than is absolutely necessary because we should never borrow what cannot be paid back, or if it would cause undue stress on the taxpayers of Virginia.
We again planned ahead in the budget we have offered up allows for excess revenues to go towards reducing the amount of money borrowed for the bond package. This is particularly beneficial to people of Virginia because we are using the money that we receive in a responsible manner. At the end of the day we would rather pay for everything up front with as little borrowed money as possible so that tax increases are not needed, and just as importantly it is less debt to have to worry about paying off.
I’m sure that everyone has been keeping their eyes glued on the 2016 Presidential election. One of the major talking points that has come is making higher education more affordable. The truth is that Virginia has always been committed to making college affordable because we know that a college degree offers people a wider pool of jobs to be employed in. We want an educated work force. This session has seen us pass legislation that is going to do just that.
Our budget proposal is going to make college more affordable, and it includes $78.6 million more than what was initially proposed by the governor. The money that we are allotting is going to 3 core areas that we believe will help to keep the cost of tuition down in Virginia, and as we know when more people can afford to attend a university more people will, which means a more specialized work force for us going forward.
We have allocated $114 million for operating and maintenance costs for colleges and universities. The thought process behind this was that if we could fund a portion of the operating costs then students would not have to pay for it in a tuition hike. Just tackling the maintenance and operating cost would not be enough to make higher education a real possibility for people so what we have also secured is $48 million to go towards undergraduate financial aid. The whole goal here is to make it easier for people to attend a university. At the end of the day getting a degree at an affordable rate, then entering the workforce with a minimal debt is going to allow those students to have a brighter more fiscally stable future. I understand that students are an investment in the future, and I want to ensure that this investment is as secure as possible because you cannot put a price on a prosperous future for Virginia. We have also gone ahead and approved $12.5 million for the New Economy Workforce Development Program. The pattern could not be clearer we care about our future here in the commonwealth, and we will do whatever it takes to keep it bright.
Students are not the only people that we need to talk about when we talk higher education though. We have secured a 3% pay raise in the first year of the budget for state employees and college faculty. Along with this came a 2% pay increase for state supported local employees. This was our way of acknowledging the hard work that these fine state employees and educators do to better the future of the commonwealth. They cannot be thanked enough for their tireless commitment to the state.
Our goal with developing a budget that would improve the economy of Virginia, was to consider what specific investments we could look into, while also increasing accountability and oversight of these investment to make sure that the growth we want to foster is actually occurring. This two fold approach is simple and effective the way government is meant to be.
We decided to give the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) the authority to undertake ongoing and continuing oversight of economic development initiatives and tax preferences. If you don’t know JLARC is probably the best in the business when it comes to research in Virginia. The researchers are non-partisan employees that are just out to determine how the commonwealth can be improved. It only made sense to have them play a vital role in our economic development plan because if there is room for improvement they will find it. That ultimately means that our economic growth plans will just get better and better as they gather more data on the various economic sectors.
We have also decided to invest $35 million for GO Virginia. The GO stands for “Growth and Opportunity” they also do research in a similar manner to JLARC, but they have only the economy on their plate. They work to diversify Virginia’s economy which means more types of jobs for students of all majors, and they try to find ways in which government can be a catalyst for economic growth, but also how we can be a partner for the private sector.
I am confident that by putting so much trust into these two organizations that Virginia Beach will have the opportunity for improvement over the next 2 years. We are going to receive input on how we can help our businesses thrive, and we can take solace that these suggestions come from some of the best and brightest in Virginia. It is not enough to say we have a bright future ahead of us, we have a shining future that all of us can take pride in.