Legislative Update
February 21, 2011

Senator Jill H. Vogel - District 27

We conclude the 2011 General Assembly Session this Saturday and will not convene again until April when the House and Senate return for the Veto session.  That will be followed by a special Redistricting session which will go through the spring and early summer.

A number of substantial bills have survived the House and Senate.  Last week both bodies passed versions of the Governor's transportation plan, higher education reform and the budget.  The transportation plan stands out for one reason--it is the most money directed at transportation in 25 years, with funding for a number of long overdue projects in the 27th district.  While no plan is perfect, I voted for the bill because it captures an extraordinary cost savings and has no new debt -a critical component.  I also voted for the higher education reform legislation.  College admission is difficult and tuition is cost-prohibitive for most Virginia students, leaving many qualified young people with no access to a college degree.  While surveys show that students believe that it is nearly impossible to succeed in business without a college degree, only 35% of Virginia students will ever enroll in a community or four-year college.  The objective of this legislation is to reverse that trend, with new money and a new formula for funding higher education and a goal of 100,000 new diplomas in the next decade. A third major hurdle was the Senate's vote on amendments to the current 2010-2012 budget.  A little primer about the budget may be of interest at this point:  Virginia's Constitution requires that we have a balanced budget.  It is a two-year budget drafted in the even years and education is the largest spending category, accounting for about 40% of the total budget.  Other categories include 28% for social programs, 12% for transportation and 7% for public safety.

Spending falls in two categories--the General Fund and the Non-general Fund.   Non-general Fund spending is non-discretionary and tied to a specific use.  It represents about 60% of the budget and includes, for example, all federal pass through money that comes to Virginia, collections of college fees and tuition, gasoline and vehicle tax revenue.  The General Fund makes up the remaining 40% of the budget, the category where the legislature has an impact.  Approximately one third of the money in both the general and non-general fund goes to localities.

The budget bill we voted on last week represents mid-cycle amendments to the original 2010 budget and virtually all of the changes are an improvement over the original budget.  While I still have objections, I cast my vote for the changes as a critical interim fix.  The Governor introduced the original amendments and the House and Senate have made their own revisions.  Key features of the Senate's version are:  $100 million net increases in K-12 funding; $100 million increase in higher education funding from the 2010 budget; and substantial restoration of Medicaid, state police, 599 money, natural resources and arts funding.

Most questions directed to our office on the budget focus on Virginia Retirement System and judicial vacancies.  Both are still being negotiated.  The Senate version of the budget includes an additional $100 million to accelerate repayment of the $600 million deferred from VRS in last year's budget.  The Senate did not include a 5% employee contribution, while the House version includes the 5% employee pay-in and offsets that with a 5% pay increase.

Judicial vacancies remain a serious issue.  The budget passed last year contained a freeze on funds for any vacancies occurring after February 2010.  At this writing, the Senate version of the bill restores funding for all judicial vacancies, the House version contains no funding and the Governor's proposal provides partial funding.  The freeze on filling judicial vacancies continues to pose a serious hardship on Fauquier and now Winchester, and our only hope for relief is restoration of funding this session.  Otherwise, those vacancies remain until March of 2012.

It seems the worst of the budget years may be behind us.  Last week the Governor's office announced that general fund revenue collections for January increased 12.6% over the previous year. This is a double-digit increase which has not occurred since the 80’s, but more notable is the upward trend we are experiencing.  January marks the 10th month in a row where we have seen an increase over the prior year’s revenue.  The monthly increase was driven by solid growth in withholding, non-withholding, and sales taxes.  The result is an additional $152 million in revenues to be factored into the budget. Virginia has also added 55,400 jobs since last February, the fourth highest number of net new jobs in the nation.

I take your thoughts and opinions seriously and hope you will contact our office any time that you have questions or concerns.  I always appreciate hearing from you, and we have one more week to welcome visitors, so please contact us soon.  You may reach me in Richmond at 804-698-7527 or send an email to district27@senate.virginia.gov.

Legislative Update
February 07, 2011

The Senate's deadline to complete all Senate legislation is February 9th.   Every bill must pass the committee process and be voted on by the full Senate in order to survive.  As is often the case, the most complex bills are held to the end.  Transportation, commerce, certain education, VRS and budget changes remain in progress.  Other bills are unresolved because Senate committee chairs have taken the unprecedented action of refusing to consider bills assigned to their committee.  This is the most divisive issue of the Senate session so far.  It impacts some of the most significant bills introduced this year--the right to work amendment, property rights, the repeal amendment and ABC reform to name a few.  It is not only a violation of the Senate rules, but it reflects badly on the committee chairs’ leadership when the fear of having to cast tough votes in an election year outweighs the responsibility to do the job.  I was elected to make those decisions--sometimes agonizing and sometimes unpopular—and I am always aware that there are consequences. 

Notwithstanding that committee glitch, the rest of session has been mostly productive and harmonious.  The Senate Finance Committee passed the transportation funding bill by a wide margin.  The proposal includes 900 projects, with critical road, rail and transit measures.  It also establishes a State Infrastructure Bank to leverage investments and a Transportation Infrastructure Fund to provide the state mechanisms to reduce the cost of credit.  The approach is innovative and has been very successful in other states.

The Senate Finance Committee also passed the Virginia higher education overhaul.  The goal is to promote economic growth by creating the best educated workforce with the most advanced research and development facilities.  It is also intended to make higher education more affordable and accessible to Virginia students.  The bill changes the way higher education is funded and includes significant new money for Virginia's colleges and universities.

Fourteen bills that I patroned passed the full Senate last week.  The first bill requires an annual inventory of the state's property with yearly recommendations on how to dispose of surplus property.  It is a much needed process in Virginia and, if it proves as successful as it has been in other states, it would save the Commonwealth significant money.  A second bill strengthens the mechanism used by the Department of Homeland Security to track potential terrorist activity.  A third bill conforms Virginia's presidential primary date to the DNC and RNC party rules.  Otherwise significant penalties would be imposed on Virginia's delegates at the presidential nominating conventions.  

Highlights of other bills I introduced that passed the Senate include a measure to make it easier for overseas military to vote; a soil scientist and wetland professionals licensure bill to assist in environmental protection; a bill exempting certain Medicaid Fraud Control Unit records from disclosure to make investigations easier and encourage companies to comply with efforts to combat fraud; a bill to promote the integrity of charitable gaming activities in the Commonwealth by clarifying gaming laws; and a bill protecting philanthropic freedom of charitable organizations in Virginia by limiting the regulations that can be imposed.

Finally, a bill I introduced affecting gun laws in Virginia was defeated by the Rules Committee.  The bill was intended to reflect that regulations affecting a Constitutional right may not be delegated by the General Assembly to non- elected agency officials.  

I take your thoughts and opinions seriously and hope you will get in touch with our office if you have questions or concerns. Over the final weeks of session, I will provide updates via email, facebook and my website www.senatorjillvogel.com.  I always appreciate hearing from you and welcome visitors to the Capitol. My room number is 309 in the General Assembly Building.  You may contact me in Richmond at 804-698-7527 or send an email to district27@senate.virginia.gov.