By: ENZO PASTORE
Session Roundup: Virginia
The 2010 General Assembly adjourned March 14th, one day later than scheduled, and was dominated by a single overriding issue: unprecedented cuts to state spending and core services once thought to be untouchable. After grappling with the greatest decline in state revenues since World War II, the legislature enacted major budget reductions in all areas of state government, while failing to enact any real revenue increases to offset the damage to state services. And with the latest state revenue report for February showing tax collections for that month down nearly 7 percent from February 2009, there’s every indication that things will worsen before they improve.
The two-year $83 billion HB 30 blueprint for state operations, which takes effect on July 1st, cuts billions in necessary funding for education, health care, public safety and transportation. As the new budget imposes no new taxes and only about $100 million in new fees, it leaves city and county governments to make up for state cuts with the choice of curbing local services, boosting local taxes or a combination of both. Although the cuts were not as severe as once expected, the budget crisis will continue as vital services and local governments feel the effects of the cuts.
Thankfully, despite vocal right-wing support, the legislature refused to make the budget problem worse and rejected HB 119 and its companion, SB 671, which would have eliminated Virginia’s corporate income tax beginning in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Education Cuts: Included in the two year budget was a huge $253 million cut in state support for local public school districts. This will mean larger class sizes, an extension in the life of school buses from 12 to 15 years, eliminating non-teaching staff jobs, and reductions in public library funding. At one time during the 2010 legislative session, K-12 cuts were forecast to approach $700 million. But even though the education cuts were not nearly as deep as initially proposed, advocates for teachers and other school staff say a $253 million decrease in public education funds will still result in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs.
Health Care Cuts and Grandstanding Against Federal Reform: Even as some state leaders attacked federal health reform efforts, they based their state health budget on help from the federal government. Health care for the indigent, disabled and elderly, will also take a big budget hit unless the state receives about $370 million in federal Medicaid funding. In addition to new restrictions on program eligibility, without the federal aid, hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and other health providers will see their already lean reimbursements for treating Medicaid patients reduced by another 7 percent by 2012.
By passing HB 10, Virginia became the first state to supposedly ban the new federal provision that requires individuals to purchase health insurance, although the law will no doubt be thrown out in court. The law was also accompanied by similar political grandstanding by the Attorney General’s lawsuit to block the mandate contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The legislature did reject HB 345, which would have required the state to withdraw from the Medicaid program upon passage of federal health care reform.
In other anti-consumer health legislation, SB 642 authorizes health maintenance organizations to offer and sell to small employers group health care plans for health care services that do not include all of the state-mandated health insurance benefits.
Transparency on Tax Expenditures: In a positive move for transparency, the enactment of HB 355 will require the State Tax Commissioner to issue an annual tax expenditure report to the General Assembly and to post on its website a summary of information of taxpayers claiming corporate income tax relief.
Big Steps Back, But a Few Steps Forward on Clean Energy and Conservation: A number of bills seeking to expand offshore oil drilling were enacted (HB 756, HB 787, SB 394), while the state Air Board will be barred from requiring power plants in non-attainment areas to reduce pollution under HB 1300/SB 128.
A group of seventeen state legislators denounced Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the financial costs to the state and misguided public policy in filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that carbon dioxide is a threat to human health and may be regulated by the EPA. Cuccinelli has added to his “states rights” grandstanding in declaring his intention to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Car Rule.
Land conservation programs faced drastic cuts, although the cap on the transfer fee for the state Land Preservation Tax Credit was lifted (HB 447 and SB 264) which s expected to raise around $2 million a year for organizations that hold conservation easements throughout Virginia.
Environmentalists were able to defeat SB 181 and HB 1395, which would have subsidized sprawl by handing out potentially unlimited bonus payments to private developers of toll roads, while the legislature did enact HB 1071 to encourage density in urban development areas.
Two progressive bills addressing clean energy legislation were signed by the Governor. House Bill 803 and its Senate companion, S623 allows a $500 income tax credit for the creation of green jobs for taxable years beginning on and after January 1, 2010. The credit is provided for up to 350 new green jobs and may qualify the taxpayer for the Enterprise Zone Grant program if the job is located in an enterprise zone.
Capital Punishment: With a governor supportive of expanding capital punishment finally in office, many observers were relieved at the defeat of a number of death penalty bills. SB 7 to make accomplices to murder eligible for the death penalty was defeated in a Senate committee that had approved the effort in past years, apparently swayed by arguments about the costs of making more crimes eligible for the death penalty. Also defeated in committee was SB 54 to expand capital punishment to include those who killed various emergency responders while on duty, including fire marshals, firefighters, special forest wardens and emergency medical technicians. The Legislature however did pass House Bill 934, which added auxiliary police officers and auxiliary deputy sheriffs to the capital murder statute so that the death sentence can be imposed for their murder.
Other notable defeats for progressives included:
- Government Transparency: HB 778 was killed in the Senate Rules Committee this session on a 13-2 vote. The bill would have provided legislators’ voting records on the General Assembly’s website. (The website already tracks the outcome of every recorded vote, it simply doesn’t allow visitors to list the votes by legislator.) Officially, the bill was “continued to 2011″ (meaning held over for further consideration next year) but most bills continued to the next year are quietly killed before the session even begins.
- Gay Rights: Two bills, HB 1116 and SB 66, would have established non-discrimination requirements for all state employees, including the category of sexual orientation. Unfortunately, both bills were killed in subcommittee.
- Immigration: Senate Bill 462 was designed to prevent law enforcement officers from asking crime victims and cooperating witnesses about their immigration status during the course of their criminal investigation