This past week saw significant change in Richmond at the Virginia General Assembly. Nearly halfway into the 2014 session two new senators were seated. Since both senators, Jennifer Wexton from Loudoun County and Lynwood Lewis from Accomack County, are Democrats, the balance of power shifted in the Senate of Virginia. With 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, the balance of power tipped to the Democrats now that we have a Democratic lieutenant governor in Ralph Northam.
Twice before in Virginia’s recent history, the Senate was evenly divided. In January 1996 the parties agreed to a power sharing arrangement. The committee chairs and majorities were staggered, with both the Democrats and the Republicans having what amounted to an equal say in the business of the Senate. That precedent was not followed when the 2011 elections yielded a 20-20 tie. Rather, the Republicans seized power and, for the first time in the history of the Senate of Virginia, threw members off committees. You might recall that I lost assignments to both the Committee for Courts of Justice and the Committee on Commerce and Labor during that upheaval.
This year, the Democrats followed the precedent from 2012. The lieutenant governor broke the procedural ties, and Democrats have claimed majorities on all but two committees and each committee chairmanship.
The result of the transfer of power is that my committee assignments have changed again. I have served on the Transportation Committee of the Senate since 2002, under chairs Marty Williams, Yvonne Miller, and Steve Newman. Earlier this week I was elected chair of the Transportation Committee. The chairmanship will give me a significant voice in the establishment of transportation policy throughout the Commonwealth. I still just have one vote on the Committee, but I will have more control over which bills are heard and the order of business.
I also gained two committee assignments. As a committee chair, I have a seat on the Rules Committee. This committee has a significant role regarding the conduct of business in the Senate and considers a wide variety of issues that are raised primarily with resolutions. Significantly, I have been appointed to the Senate Finance Committee. Without question, this is the most important committee in the Senate because it handles the budget and all legislation with a fiscal impact. A majority of bills and public policy matters require funding, and sometimes bills pass but are ineffective because money is not attached. My vote on the Finance Committee will give me and my constituents a significant voice in the conduct of government in Virginia. This is my 23rd year in the General Assembly and the first time I have been appointed to a money committee.
The work of the Senate Finance Committee is divided up by topic matter into eight subcommittees. I have three subcommittee assignments in the Finance Committee. First, I serve on the Transportation Subcommittee due to my chairmanship of the Transportation Committee and my long standing interest in transportation policy. Specific construction projects are not usually funded by the General Assembly, rather decisions about which projects go forward are made at the local level through MPOs and by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. However, this assignment will give me and my constituents a significant role in determining which policy areas are funded and how we move forward, particularly in the areas of rail and air space, a growing area of economic importance for the Commonwealth.
My second new subcommittee assignment is for Economic Development and Natural Resources. This subcommittee is very important to me because of my long standing interest in conservation and state parks, and my interest and efforts in the area of economic development. Some may recall that I introduced the legislation back in 1996 that codified the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. Any number of economic development projects have been funded through budget amendments I have introduced over the years. Historically, Virginia ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in spending on natural resources and state parks. You can expect me to work to increase funding there and to make sure that our economic development dollars are spent wisely.
My final subcommittee assignment is to the Public Safety Subcommittee. This is the subcommittee that decides what criminal justice or corrections initiatives, whether advanced through the Courts of Justice Committee, or elsewhere, are worth funding. Difficult decisions are made here because many worthy bills pass, but fiscal constraints require us to set priorities. Without question this subcommittee will involve some of the toughest decisions I will have to make.
I suppose many people wished the power sharing precedent of 1996 was followed. In fact, that is the model that would probably produce more collegiality and a better work environment. However, after the events of 2012 when multiple senators were thrown off committees, and the blatant power grab allowed issues such as the invasive ultrasound bill to advance, it was impossible to follow the earlier precedent. I am confident that the Senate can move on and work toward the goals of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We have vital work to do in the remaining five weeks.
It continues to be my distinct honor to serve you in the General Assembly. This will be a busy session for me, and I look forward to your input throughout the process. Concerns, questions, or requests should be directed to my office at: PO Box 396, Richmond, Va 23218, [email protected], or (804) 698-7525.