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The temperatures outside have begun to rise, and this week in Richmond the General Assembly passed the legislative halfway point of session: Crossover. In addition, the House and Senate released their plans to amend Virginia’s two-year budget. It was an event-filled week, one including sad news that led to a rare occurrence in the Capitol.
With the passage of crossover, the House had to act on every bill filed by a delegate. Seven of my bills have been approved by the House and are headed to the Senate. Another was incorporated into a similar bill filed by one of my colleagues. That bill, too, was approved by the House.
The House approved just over half of the bills submitted by delegates. A total of 596 House Bills have been sent to the Senate. The Senate, on the other hand, has approved a higher percentage of the bills submitted by senators. Nearly two-thirds of the bills filed by senators are headed to the House for consideration. Even though the Senate approved a higher percentage of bills filed by its members, the total of Senate Bills headed to the House for consideration is just 491.
The House and Senate also approved different versions of amendments to Virginia’s 2010-2012 budget. It will come as a surprise to no one that the budget amendments approved by the Republican-majority House are closer to the plan submitted by Governor McDonnell than the amendments approved by the Democrat-majority Senate. The Senate went along with none of those amendments initially proposed by the Governor.
Included in this year’s house budget amendments are two main adjustments to VRS. The first reinstates employee contributions with an accompanying salary offset. The second, found in HB 2410, provides an optional defined contribution plan. State employees have not received a pay increase in four and a half years, and in light of rebounding revenue trends, the House Appropriations Committee determined a 5 percent offset for employees was a fair and sustainable solution.
HB 2410 continues to build upon legislative changes enacted last year by further implementing comprehensive and structural reforms to the state pension system. The bill introduces an optional defined contribution retirement plan (similar to the 401(k) style pension plan that are the norm in the private sector) that’s integral to ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of VRS.
As is the case with all legislation, the General Assembly has just two weeks to reach an agreement on the budget and produce a single package of amendments. It is a challenge to both legislators and citizens to bear in mind that many decisions made in the budget process between both houses must allow for negotiation and compromise to come to an agreement acceptable for both the Senate and House. Negotiators for the House will be led by Delegate Lacey Putney, who is serving his 50th year in the House this session.
The sad news this week was the passing of Supreme Court Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr., the first African-American to serve as Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. Governor McDonnell ordered Virginia’s flags be flown at half-mast in honor of Justice Hassell. He had served on the Court since 1989, and had stepped down as Chief Justice on January 31.
Justice Hassell’s body lay in state in the Capitol’s rotunda on Friday. This is a very rare occurrence, and Justice Hassell is the first African-American to ever receive such an honor. It is fitting that a man who accomplished so many firsts in his life was marked by another first in a final tribute from the Commonwealth.
The stream of visitors to the Capitol continued this week. We enjoyed visiting with the members of the Virginia Credit Unions. Citizens who support the Family Foundation of Virginia were also among the many groups that came to Richmond this week, holding a rally on Capitol Square. Supporters of the organization from across Virginia came to the Capitol to lobby members on behalf of their legislative agenda. One of my bills, which would repeal the mandate for the vaccine known as Gardasil, is a top priority for the Foundation.
The weather forecast is promising temperatures in the 60s for the week to come, which may be a sign that the groundhog got it right earlier this month. I’ll have more news from Virginia’s Capitol in the next week’s column.