By Senator Lynwood Lewis Jr.
Listen to this report:
With adjournment of the General Assembly Session closing in and Crossover behind us, we are working in Richmond to finalize the Budget Bill and Committee work. The House and the Senate proposed Budgets reflecting adjusted revenues that differed from each other as well as from the Governor’s proposed Budget Amendments. The money Committees and Budget conferees will hammer out these differences in Conference, but there are some significant items to note that are a net positive for the Shore.
I will outline a few of those Budget items, but first would like to address the issue of tax conformity. As I have mentioned in earlier columns, tax conformity was the most pressing issue facing the General Assembly Session this year. In order for Virginians to have their tax returns processed in a timely manner the legislature needed to swiftly conform the Virginia tax code following the sweeping changes made at the federal level last year. Historically, Virginia addresses conformity and policy separately which allows for tax season to move forward without significant disruption for Virginia taxpayers. Unfortunately, leadership within the majority party refused to move forward with straight tax conformity. This led to a delay in the process, but we had to address our tax issue prior to handling the direction of any additional revenues provided by the federal changes.
At the end of Crossover week, the Governor’s Administration and Republican leadership negotiated a deal that allowed for tax conformity to move forward while also addressing policy. The standard deduction was raised to $4500 for single Virginians and $9000 for married taxpayers – a $1500 and $3000 increase respectively – and Virginian taxpayers will receive up to $110 back from the state depending on tax liability. Married couples will receive up to $220. Those in my caucus were very concerned about making sure middle-class Virginians who are seeing diminished returns at the federal level – mostly those making under $50,000 – are not also harmed by this deal. We received assurances from the Administration that this policy compromise would benefit our constituents making under $50,000 and my Democratic colleagues in the House were able to establish a Taxpayer Relief Fund for future years. This deal did change the revenue projections and made some of the investments that would have been utilized with one-time revenues under the original proposed budget adjustments put forth in December unrealistic. Ultimately, the deal negotiated by the Governor and majority leadership was necessary to move forward with conformity but is not perfect. The Budget will continue to be worked on as we move through the final weeks of Session.
In terms of the Budget, we were able to ensure the 5% raise for teachers remained despite some opposition and were able to fund critical adjustments to our student-to-counselor ratios. In the Senate Budget, we appropriated additional funds to address mental health care needs, fully fund Medicaid expansion, increase funds for our statewide Broadband initiative and still appropriate additional funds for at-risk add-ons for K-12, though not to the levels we had initially hoped forwith the Governor’s originally proposed Budget amendments.
I worked hard to get funding for VIMS to conduct the modeling necessary to inform the desired Army Corps of Engineers 3x3x3 study for the Chincoteague Inlet Project. This is incredibly important for the future of Chincoteague and Assateague, and the funding of this modeling will not only help to inform erosion control and stabilization management decisions on the islands, but also make us more competitive when seeking the non-federal match for the full 3x3x3 study.
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority saw additional targeted investments in the Senate Budget; these would fund the complete construction of the small rocket launch facility, in partnership with Rocket Lab, and improve the capacity of the Wallop’s Island facility to handle testing of sea-based autonomous systems. It is clear the rest of the Commonwealth recognizes the critical role Wallops and the Space Authority play in the new Virginia economy.
I am hopeful that the final Budget that emerges from Conference will also include some $500,000 for the Shoreline Resiliency Fund, which was created by legislation I put forward in 2016. This would be instrumental in getting the program off the ground, establishing critical framework and providing the initial low-interest loans for resiliency improvements and investments.
This is only a brief overview of an expansive Budget Bill, but I do believe that we will have some important appropriations addressed this year. We are still seeking ways to address the massive infrastructure needs for our public schools around the state and will continue to push for these critical investments.
There isn’t too much time left to visit us in Richmond, but if you can make it up we’d still love to have you. We adjourn February 23. Please continue to monitor the activities of the legislature on the General Assembly website VirginiaGeneralAssembly.gov and be on the lookout for information regarding our post-session town halls. I can be reached at our legislative email District06@senate.virginia.gov and while in Richmond by telephone at (804) 698-7506. Please do not hesitate to contact me on issues with questions about legislation or on issues of concern.