We have just completed the third full week of the 2017 General Assembly Session. Committee meetings and floor sessions are getting longer as the House works to complete its work by Crossover, which is February 7.
As legislation works its way through the process, nearly all bills undergo changes. Unfortunately, the General Assembly website doesn’t always show the changes promptly, meaning what you see online may not always be the most current version of the bill. Please keep this in mind as you evaluate legislation.
There are lots of things going on in Richmond now, so let me give you a quick update on some of this week’s highlights.
On Tuesday, Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones and Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairmen Tommy Norment and Emmett Hanger held a joint press conference to highlight their joint priorities regarding a compensation package for state employees. The proposal includes a 3% pay raise for state employees, funds to raise the starting salary of Virginia State Police, and funds to address salary compression issues for sheriff’s deputies.
Unfortunately last year state employees lost their scheduled pay raise due to the failure to meet estimated revenue projections. I’m pleased to see that leadership on the budget committees of both the House and Senate have made the pay raise a priority this year.
While they have seemingly reached an agreement on state employee compensation, there is still a lot of work to be done on the budget. The House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees will unveil their respective proposals on February 5, 2017.
As a retired teacher, one of my top priorities throughout my time in the General Assembly has been education reform. House Republicans understand that education is the key to a strong workforce and this year we have several education initiatives that address all levels of learning in Virginia.
In 2016 the House budget sent 31% of lottery funds, which totaled approximately $272 million, back to local school divisions. This mechanism gives local schools more flexibility by not requiring matching funds or mandating how the funds must be spent. This year we look to build on this investment that gives local school leaders the flexibility to meet their own unique public education needs.
The House is committed to maintaining and improving Virginia’s already strong K-12 system. We will work to give all children the opportunities in education they deserve by enacting reforms in public education, promoting choice and flexibility, and encouraging early childhood education.
One key piece of the House Republican education agenda is my HB 1400, which would create the Virginia Virtual School. This bill is identical to my HB 8 from 2016. As you may remember, HB 8 was passed by both Houses but then vetoed by Governor McAuliffe. HB 1400 establishes a full-time virtual program as another option for parents in Virginia who find that their children to not excel in the traditional brick and mortar school. Virginia is a leader in so many areas, and I believe virtual education should be one of them. HB 1400 is still working its way through the committee process, but I hope to be able to share a more detailed update on this bill very soon!
Delegate Dave LaRock is carrying HB 1605 that creates Education Savings Accounts. ESAs will empower parents to choose what is right for their child’s education by allowing families with special needs students to receive direct access to the state funding for that student. That funding is deposited into an Education Savings Account, where it can be used for private school tuition, homeschool, online classes, course materials, or other educational purposes.
The House is also exploring better ways to encourage early childhood education. Our focus is on improving access to private providers. Jimmie Massie is helping on this front with HB 1963 that makes families with at-risk 4 year old’s unserved by Head Start eligible for tax credits to enroll in a pre-k program.
Another problem Virginia families face is affordability of higher education. While we continue to encourage our state schools to cap their tuition, we are also looking at other ways to reduce the debt load of Virginia’s students.
Dual enrollment credits provide a wonderful opportunity for students to begin working on their degree credits while still in high school. Delegate Tag Greason is carrying HB 1662 to establish a uniform policy for granting undergraduate course credit to entering freshman students. This will allow students to adequately prepare their course schedules and maximize the benefits of any and all dual enrollment courses they take in high school.
We also need to take steps to modernize our 40 year old financial aid model. Majority Leader Kirk Cox is carrying HB 2427, which will do just that. This legislation will motivate and reward students who successfully finish their degree on time by increasing aid money as they progress through their academic career. Delegate Cox is also carrying HB 2311, which creates the Online Virginia Network. This is aimed at providing a new pathway for students to complete a college degree by establishing an online consortium of classes from various state universities. It is a one-stop shop for scheduling, registering, and taking online classes. Higher education institutions in Virginia have focused primarily on enhancing enrollment, retention, and graduation rates in pursuit of preparing a highly skilled workforce for the Virginia economy. The same emphasis needs to be directed toward identifying those individuals with some college credit, but who have not attained a degree.
This is your last chance to take my 2017 Legislative Survey! Each year I conduct a legislative survey featuring a few important public policy issues that may be considered by the General Assembly. Your opinion is very important to me, so please take a few moments to let me know where you stand on the issues.
You can take the survey online here.
Feel free to share this survey with your friends and family who live in the 20th District!
While we make every attempt to include as many topics as possible on the survey, we simply can’t cover everything. If you have an opinion on an issue not covered by the survey, please let us hear from you.
This week we had many visitors from home drop by our Richmond office. Unfortunately my committee schedule kept me from seeing many of you. I’m sorry if I missed you but I’m glad you made the trip to Richmond!
This week we were visited by: Ed and Georgia Long, Students from Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School, representatives from Shenandoah Valley Electric Co-op, Peter Agelasto, Dr. Halvor G. Aasllestad, Reese Bull, Eric Curran, Marcia Elliot, Commissioners of the Revenue Jean Shrewsbury and Maggie Ragon, Chandler Gillespie and Ken Landford representing Drive Smart, Greg Holsinger from the Augusta County Farm Bureau, Scott Heinz and Toby Morris from VA Eagle, Bo Wilson and Bruce Thomas from Dr. Pepper of Staunton, George Mason Student Keelin Wolfe, Dan Moxley and his family, John Downey and a group of students from Blue Ridge Community College, Certified Nurse Midwife Alexann Westlake, Representatives from the Wayne Theatre and American Shakespeare Center, Representatives from the Shelter for Help and Emergency and New Direction, Representatives from the Office on Youth of the Central Shenandoah Valley, local representatives of Convention of States, and Erin Collins and a group of Mary Baldwin University Political Science students.
We love seeing friendly faces from home during Session. If you are going to be in the Richmond area, consider dropping by for a visit. While appointments are not required, we do recommend that you call or email us ahead of time to schedule a time for a visit.
While I make every attempt to see my constituents, please understand that my committee schedule can be very hectic and change very quickly. I appreciate your patience and understanding.
We are operating out of our Richmond Office for the duration of the 2017 Session. While we still monitor the voicemail on our District Office phone line, the quickest way to reach us by phone will be by calling the Richmond office directly at 804-698-1020. We will still receive email at DelDBell@house.virginia.gov.
If you prefer to send us written correspondence, you can send mail to Post Office Box 406, Richmond, Virginia 23218.
I look forward to hearing from you on the issues that matter most to you.
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your delegate!