We have made it through Crossover in the 2015 General Assembly Session.
This week each House also had to advance their respective budget proposals.
The hardworking families of Virginia have to balance their budgets each year, set priorities, and make tough decisions. They have the right to expect the same of their state government, and I believe the House budget proposal does just that.
The budget we passed on Thursday is conservative, responsible, and, as constitutionally required, balanced. General fund spending is down $1.1 billion from just last year. We set aside $99.5 million for the rainy day fund, eliminated $42.5 million in debt and $10.2 million in fees proposed by the Governor.
At the same time, we are using the resources from a modest increase in revenue to make targeted investments in K-12, provide our state employees and state police pay raises, and strengthen our safety net.
Classroom Success K-12 Education Agenda
The House budget funds the state portion of a 1.5 percent teacher pay raise, as well as additional funding to support teacher, principal and school board members’ professional development. It deposits an additional $40 million over the Governor’s proposal into the teacher retirement fund.
Funding is only one part of K-12 education. The House has also passed several bills that are intended to increase accountability and encourage innovation. We passed several school choice initiatives, including measures that would create an education savings account for special needs students and establish a full time virtual school in Virginia. We also passed a constitutional amendment that would grant the Board of Education the authority to establish charter schools within the school divisions of the Commonwealth.
I have heard from many of you over the last several months regarding the potential implementation of Common Core educational standards in Virginia. You will be glad to know that we passed legislation to prevent any gubernatorial administration from bypassing the General Assembly to adopt Common Core. We also passed several measures to reform the Standards of Learning Assessment so that they will better measure student learning and give every student the opportunity to succeed.
Virginia is home to some of the top colleges and universities in the nation. Unfortunately, the cost of higher education has continued to rise. As the college application process has become more competitive, Virginia students have also found themselves on waiting lists and have been unable to attend our best schools. We have worked to address both of those issues in the budget by targeting funds to open up new enrollment slots and providing additional funding to make it more affordable to transfer from Community College to our four year institutions.
We advanced several important measures designed to make college more affordable for our students. The House passed legislation that caps student athletic fees, that allows colleges to offer lower-cost “flat-fee degrees” for in-demand fields, and that offer significantly more affordable online bachelor’s degrees. I supported these bills to give Virginia students more affordable pathways to the opportunities that a good education provides.
Earlier this session I told you about a bill that I patroned this year regarding Virtual Education in Virginia. House Bill 1361 establishes a new Virtual Virginia School and creates a Board of the Virginia Virtual School as a policy agency under the Secretary of Education (SOE). The School will offer both online classes and virtual school programs to children in Virginia.
I am pleased to report that this bill has passed the House of Delegates for the second year in a row. It has now been referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Health. House Bill 324, a nearly identical bill that passed in the House last year, is also still alive in the Senate. It was carried over last year and is waiting to be heard in Senate Finance.
If passed, these bills would make full time virtual education available to students across the Commonwealth. Unfortunately not every student is able to thrive in the traditional classroom. This would allow another option for those students to grow and learn in an environment that best meets their needs. Virginia is a leader in so many areas, and virtual education needs to be one of them.
If you agree with me, I encourage you to reach out to your State Senator and ask him to vote for House Bill 324 and House Bill 1361.
In addition to House Bill 1361, I had two other important measures pass in the House of Delegates this week.
House Bill 1437 provides that a public body may, by ordinance, resolution, or policy statement, adopt a policy to permit public prayer prior to the meeting of the body. The prayer can be delivered by a chaplain elected by the public officials of the body or by an invocation speaker selected on an objective and rotating basis from a wide pool of the religious leaders serving the local community.
The Court has consistently upheld the right of public bodies to begin their meetings with prayer, yet many localities still have concerns over the manner in which they are able to do this. This bill will provide clarity and reassurance to those public bodies throughout the Commonwealth who choose to adopt a policy for public prayer.
Additionally, the House passed House Joint Resolution 490. This resolution is the first resolution to make our Right to Work laws part of Virginia’s Constitution. Current law provides that a citizen cannot be denied the employment or continuation of employment for failing to join a union or other labor organization. This amendment would make Virginia’s Right to Work law more permanent by adding it to the constitution.
The Right to Work law is vital to the success of Virginia’s workforce, and is an important factor in Virginia’s continued high rankings as one of the best states for business. By adding the existing Right to Work law to the Constitution of Virginia, we are ensuring that it will stay part of Virginia law for many years to come.
This week we were visited by students from the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School. We were also visited by the Board of Directors of Augusta Health, and a number of representatives from the Greater Augusta Regional Association of Realtors.
We also saw Dr. John Downey and Kelly Jones from Blue Ridge Community College. Dave Mason was here along with a group from Americans for Prosperity. We also briefly saw Janita McNemar of the Staunton/Augusta Adult Learning Center. Greg Hitchen, Economic Development Director from Waynesboro, was also here with the board of the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
If you plan to be in Richmond over the next two weeks, we would love for you to drop by.
Even with the tight committee schedule, we do our best to see as many constituents in as possible. Though appointments are not required, they are strongly encouraged.
To make an appointment, call Savanna at 804-698-1020.
Session Contact Information
While we are in Session our contact information will be a little different than it is while we are in the District.
Although we will still monitor voicemail on the phone in our district office, the quickest way to reach us by phone is 804-698-1020.
You can continue to reach us by email at DelDBell@house.virginia.gov.
If you would prefer to send us written correspondence, you can do so at Post Office Box 406, Richmond, Virginia 23218.
While we do our best to respond to every email and voicemail as quickly as possible, during Session we get sometimes hundreds of calls and emails each day. Therefore, it can often take some time to filter through everything. We appreciate your patience and understanding, and assure you that we will work to get back to you as promptly as possible.
As always, I thank you for allowing me to serve as your Delegate.