Creigh Deeds: Session Report
January has come and gone. Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow, and it appears that six more weeks of winter weather are ahead. We saw temperatures in the 70s in Richmond this week. Hopefully Phil is predicting six more weeks of this type of wintry weather.
Throughout this session, one thing that stands out for me is the apparent disconnect between my colleagues in the General Assembly and those who campaigned for office last fall. Last fall, candidates from both parties in every region of the Commonwealth were focused on the economy, and rightfully so.
While federal spending in Virginia has offered some protection from the recession that has wrecked havoc on the American economy, parts of Virginia have struggled. Some areas, in fact, never recovered from the last few recessions. The incoming 2012 Senate of Virginia was focused on making government work with the private sector to increase economic growth. At least that’s what we heard last fall.
From my prospective, while it is true that real economic growth is going to come from the private sector, there are things we can do to enhance economic activity all over the Commonwealth. We can maintain an environment which encourages business growth. I am proud to say we have one of the best climates for business in the country. We have a Right to Work law; we have a conservative court climate; our regulatory environment is business friendly; and our tax structure is relatively low. None of that will likely change this session. While the government can promote economic growth by maintaining the right climate, we still must make investments in critical infrastructure to bring growth to Virginia.
First, the most important asset we have is our people, and the most important investment is the development of young people. Every year we hear about problems in specific school systems throughout the state. This year, just about every local newspaper has reported a story about a local school system that is facing a budget shortfall. The General Assembly not only has neglected this issue, but it has been compounded by the Governor’s underfunding of the Standards of Quality in his introduced budget.
The other part of education and workforce training is higher education. We have an excellent system of community colleges and four year institutions. Last year important legislation was passed that recognized the connection between workforce development and higher education and set high benchmarks for us to increase our education and training of students in the specific areas of science, technology, education, and mathematics. If we are to compete with the rest of the world, we cannot continue to fall behind in these key areas. The legislation required us to make investments in higher education, and the Governor’s budget recognizes that to a degree. We used to lead the world in higher education and producing engineers and scientists. We can again, and we should not settle for less.
The second thing the state can do to promote economic growth is invest in transportation. If we are to build a 21st century economy, we must build the infrastructure to support it, and that requires investment in transportation. Sadly, we will not even come close to remedying the shortfall in funding we have in transportation, or the fact that by 2017, unless we take action to increase funding, we will begin to lose federal construction funding. Tax dollars paid by Virginians at the gas pump to the federal government will be spent in other states.
Instead of focusing on education, transportation, and things we can do to promote economic growth, this session of the General Assembly seems to be focused on social issues. Much newsprint and frankly much energy in this session of the General Assembly seem to be devoted to issues around guns and abortion. I own a number of guns and am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and an individual’s right to own and possess firearms, but it seems to me that in this time of economic crisis, we should be focused on creating jobs and putting people to work. Likewise, rather than interfering in the doctor-patient relationship by mandating medically unnecessary and costly procedures, such as ultrasounds, we would better serve the people we represent by focusing on the issues we talked about last fall.
Another area of focus seems to be on suppressing voter turnout. Bills that make carrying identification to the polls mandatory and require a waiting period for newly registered absentee voters are said to be aimed at voter fraud, but seem more likely to discourage participation by voters, young and old, and new voters in general. We already have one of the lowest voter participation rates in the western world, and the system we have in place already produces clean election results. These bills, like so many others this year, are not aimed at creating economic activity in our Commonwealth.
Politics and government aren’t always the same thing, but it seems to me there was a politician who once said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” He was right then, and we would be wise to remember the maxim now.
Creigh Deeds is a member of the Virginia State Senate.