February 20, 2012
February 14th marked our Crossover session. It is the midway point of every legislative session and this annual milestone marks the deadline by which the Senate must act on all bills filed by members of the Senate. Any successful Senate bills must be sent to the House by midnight. The House has the same deadline by which to complete their bills and transmit their successful legislation to the Senate.
The date is traditionally consumed by long sessions and lengthy debates on the floor of both houses of the General Assembly. However, this year, those sessions were not nearly as long, with both sides completing their work well in advance of assigned deadlines. I think we are unusually well-organized this session and more efficient than any session that I have served. We have done a good job of weeding out the bad bills and perfecting the quality bills. Of the nearly 700 bills filed by Senators, more than 400 were approved and sent to the House for consideration. Also, by Crossover, the Senate had already considered and approved a significant number of House bills, passing 77 to be exact.
Prior to Crossover, a stunning range of substantive bills dealing with every major issue facing the Commonwealth had been approved by the Senate. To create jobs and strengthen our economy, we approved measures that provide incentives for investment in small businesses and for the placement of major business facilities in Virginia. To improve the quality of education and workforce development, the Senate approved legislation streamlining diploma requirements for high school students, making them more rigorous and enhancing their value. Legislation providing for the accreditation of new virtual schools and allowing more partnerships between local school boards and colleges and universities also won approval.
It should be no surprise that the most controversial bills were being refined until the very end. In this case, among the bills left until the last hours of the crossover deadline were transportation bills, Virginia Retirement System measures, project labor agreement limitations and the Property Rights Constitutional Amendment.
The Property Rights Amendment gained the most attention. The resolution to amend the Constitution of Virginia to protect property rights, and an accompanying bill defining those rights, both passed. The intent of the measures is to ensure that property takings by government under eminent domain are limited to legitimate public uses and that landowners receive just compensation. To amend the Constitution of Virginia requires the amendment be approved by the House and Senate in two successive legislative sessions. After that, the amendment goes before the voters in the form of a referendum and voters can approve or reject.
The Senate also voted to approve the bill prohibiting mandated Project Labor Agreements for public works contracts in Virginia. Allowing PLAs to be mandated in these contracts unfairly prevents the participation of the overwhelming majority of Virginia-based firms in the bidding/procurement process. These measures received approval by both houses of the General Assembly in an effort to protect Virginia business in a difficult economy and very competitive procurement environment.
On the transportation front, there are two competing transportation measures before the General Assembly. The House version most closely reflects Governor McDonnell's proposal, while the Senate's version includes a proposal to "index" the gas tax. The final transportation bill will be a compromise, and will undoubtedly include some of the provisions found in the House bill and some from the Senate. However, Governor McDonnell and the House have made it clear they will not approve any bill that includes the gas tax index component.
Finally, the biggest event of the week came Sunday afternoon when the Senate Finance Committee met to pass the Senate's version of the 2012-2014 Biennial Budget. It was the result of weeks of painstaking work. I chaired the subcommittee responsible for general government, technology, state employee compensation, the court system and the Virginia Retirement System, and I am very proud of the budget that we produced.
My priority for my subcommittee was to focus on employee compensation, recognizing that state employees have not had a salary increase since 2007 and that our courts, and our court clerks in particular, have been ground to a halt because of lack of funding. With that in mind, we were able to draft a budget that includes a 3% bonus for state employees effective in 2012. We also included a $58.8 million allocation for a 2% salary increase for state employees and state-supported local employees effective in 2013. Our budget also allocated $9.8 million for an additional 136 new deputy district court clerk positions and we "unfroze" ten judgeships in areas of the state with the greatest judicial workload. In the category of VRS, we did not endorse any further changes to the retirement programs for current state and local employees. We also set aside money to counter the existing reduction in aid to localities, boosting local aid by up to $50 million in 2013.
I hope that the full Senate and the House will support these proposals. Six other subcommittees had complex budgets to propose and they all passed in committee as well. Those categories were education, health and human resources, transportation, public safety and capital outlay. A synopsis of those proposals will follow in the next legislative update.
As always, I take your thoughts and opinions seriously and hope that you will get in touch with our office any time that you have questions or concerns. We have had a number of visitors in the Capitol this session and I urge you to visit if you have time before the session concludes on March 10th. It is a great experience and especially educational for kids. I can be reached during the General Assembly session at 804-698-7527, P.O. Box 397, Richmond, VA 23218 or you can email me at email@example.com. Also, please visit our website at www.senatorjillvogel.com