Last Thursday, both the House and Senate passed the budget conference report. This is a little earlier than normal, but due to the hard work of both the House and Senate conferees, they were able to accomplish this task.
In Virginia, unlike the federal government, we have to pass a balanced budget. Here are a few noteworthy items from this year’s budget:
- No tax increases
- No Medicaid expansion
- No cuts to K-12 or Higher Education
- Pre-pays $129.5 million for the 2017 rainy day fund – bringing the balance to just under $430 million
- Restores $4 million in overtime funding for Virginia State Police
- Provides a state-supported local government employee raise of 2%, as well as the state’s portion of a 1.5% pay raise for teachers.
I’m pleased to report that out of the 21 pieces of legislation, I introduced, 15 pieces passed the House and the Senate. Here is a quick update on a few key bills that passed both chambers:
SJ 256 Charter Schools – It was a great session for education reform, and I’m excited that a resolution I introduced, which could result in a constitutional amendment, passed both the House and Senate. The passage of SJ 256 was an historic first step towards amending the Virginia Constitution to reform Virginia’s restrictive charter school laws, finally giving charter schools a chance to succeed in the Commonwealth.
SJ 256 empowers the Virginia Department of Education to authorize charter schools directly. Currently, charter schools in Virginia can only be authorized by their public school division, and unsurprisingly few school divisions have been willing to authorize a competing public school, even upon a strong showing of local need and a compelling operating plan. While there are many great school divisions in Virginia, some are simply failing. Children and their families are paying the price, and these school divisions are the most likely to benefit from this change. Under the current system, Virginia has only seven charter schools – that’s right, seven.
A recent American Federation for Children poll notes that almost 70% of Americans support school choice. It also reported that 81% of Republicans and 60% of Democrats support school choice. If we are serious about providing the best education possible to our children, we must change the way we look at charter schools.
Going forward, the constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly again next year. Resolutions, unlike most bills, do not go to the Governor for approval so (luckily) it cannot be vetoed. If the resolution passes again next year it will be submitted to the voters in the November 2016 general election for approval.
SB 1187 Sex Trafficking – I have worked on this issue for a number of years and am pleased that the General Assembly passed a new, stand-alone sex trafficking felony statute. It’s easy to think of sex trafficking as something that happens elsewhere, but its happening in communities across Virginia and increasingly it is children who are being sold for sex. In America there are an estimated 200,000 children engaged in sex trafficking and their average age is 13 – that means there are a lot of 11 and 12 year olds being exploited as well. For an article describing the challenges inherent in fighting this crime in Virginia, I recommend reading a June 2013 article from Washingtonian Magazine entitled “You’re Pretty – You Could Make Some Money.”
This legislation is a major step forward in giving law enforcement the tools they need to protect our kids and other vulnerable victims from being exploited through this growing enterprise.
SB1187 DNA Database Expansion – SB 1187 will expand DNA samples taken to those convicted of certain misdemeanor crimes (violating a protective order, sexual assault, etc.). This has the potential to help solve cold case crimes and prevent felony crimes in the future. During committee testimony on the Senate side, I was honored to have Sheriff Chip Harding of Albemarle County and Gil Harrington, mother of Morgan Harrington, testifying in support of this public safety measure. They shared compelling testimony related to the recent Hannah Graham case in Charlottesville. If the alleged killer in that case had been sampled back in 2005 under his criminal misdemeanor conviction, he would have been linked to a sexual assault case in 2010, been incarcerated if convicted, and Hannah Graham may still be alive today.
SB1102 Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) – My legislation was rolled into Sen. Watkins SB1025, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed by the Governor during Session. The legislation provides a process for TNCs, such as Uber, to gain authority to operate from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and provides requirements for driver background checks and insurance. Under the legislation, TNC drivers will undergo a thorough background check, and TNCs will be required to provide $1 million insurance protection whenever a vehicle is on its way to pick up or carrying a passenger.
This week, we transition back to our district office in Harrisonburg. If you have a constituent service need, or questions about legislation, please do not hesitate to contact my office at 540.437.1451 or email my legislative aide, Jenni Aulgur, at Jennifer@markobenshain.com. I am always happy to hear from you and look forward to assisting you in any way possible.
Mark Obenshain is a member of the Virginia State Senate.