After a tumultuous Virginia General Assembly session attracted unprecedented national scrutiny, House Speaker Del. Kirk Cox (R-66th) and House Deputy Minority Leader Del. Mark Sickles (D-43rd) opted for restraint when they convened at the Hyatt Regency in Reston on Mar. 13 for the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce’s “Embracing the New Dominion” legislative breakfast.
The shadow of blackface admissions made by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring in February, as well as the sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, hovered in the hotel ballroom where public officials and business leaders gathered Wednesday morning.
However, no one addressed the scandals with any specificity, as Cox and Sickles both kept their remarks mostly focused on laundry lists of perceived legislative successes and failures.
“I’m very proud of the session we had,” Cox said. “…I thought it was one of the best budget years we’ve ever had.”
With Republicans maintaining control of the State Senate but only a slim lead in the House of Delegates, budget negotiations and legislative policy discussions have been contentious in the past two years.
Last year, disputes over issues like Medicaid expansion and proposed hotel and real estate transfer tax increases for Northern Virginia to fund Metro kept state legislators in Richmond until the end of May for a special session on the 2018-2020 state budget.
Budget talks in the 2019 session were not quite as fraught. Both chambers of the General Assembly approved a conference report with amendments to the state budget on Feb. 24, overstepping the originally scheduled adjournment date by one day.
The state legislature will reconvene on Apr. 3 for a veto session to address any amendments to the revised budget proposed by Northam.
An estimated $1.2 billion in surplus revenue gave legislators more flexibility to address different issues, including education, healthcare, and economic and workforce development, according to Sickles.
In addition to a 2 percent salary raise for teachers on top of a 3 percent increase that was approved in 2018, the General Assembly’s revised budget includes roughly $57 million in state aid to higher education institutions contingent on their ability to maintain current tuition rates.
The budget also allocates $28.5 million to increase at-risk add-on funding for public school divisions with high student poverty rates as well as $12 million to support an additional 250 counselors in elementary, middle, and high schools.
The funding for counselors partly stemmed from recommendations issued by the House Select Committee on School Safety that Cox assembled in 2018 after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., though the committee’s scope did not include gun violence prevention measures.
“What we heard mostly is the physical aspects of a school building are important, but if you talk to anyone who served in law enforcement for 20, 30 years, what they tell you is they see more troubled children than they’ve ever seen before,” Sickles, who served on the bipartisan select committee, said. “We need to nip that in the bud. That’s where we get a real payoff in school safety.”
Cox highlighted the passage of a tax reform bill as the most significant accomplishment of the 2019 General Assembly session.
Signed into law by Northam on Feb. 15, the tax bill ensures that Virginia’s tax laws conform to federal laws after Congress overhauled tax brackets and deductions by passing the Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
Northam initially proposed tax reform legislation that would give tax credits specifically to low-income families, an approach favored by most Democrats, while Republicans made preventing significant state tax hikes their primary goal.
The bill that was ultimately approved guaranteed a $110 refund for individual taxpayers and $220 for couples along with a 50 percent increase for the standard deduction that will kick in next year.
Cox said Wednesday that the tax bill amounts to a $1 billion tax cut with $420 million in tax refunds this year.
Both Cox and Sickles expressed approval of legislation that will give Amazon $750 million in performance-based incentives for choosing Arlington as the location for its second headquarters.
The legislature also included $16.6 million for a fund to assist Virginia universities and colleges in producing an additional 25,000 computer science graduates by 2039 with the goal of building a talent pipeline to serve technology companies like Amazon.
“The thing that Amazon will tell you that probably sold that package is the higher ed component,” Cox said. “…We’re really trying to get universities, and they’re doing a much better job of this, of getting out of their silos. They’ve got to work together, whether it be research, whether it is just connecting with businesses on what degrees are necessary.”
Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Mark Ingrao called workforce development the biggest issue affecting members of his organization.
“We have a 2.8 percent unemployment rate, and we need to find that talent to fill those tech jobs, all the different jobs coming out of this new economy,” Ingrao said. “So, that for me is just really important going forward.”