Ok everybody. Happy Valentine's Day! Again, wintery, awful weather. So, I hope you’re snuggled in safely at home. This past week we transitioned from a regular session to a special session. That’s a weird thing. The reason that happened is that there was a strong conviction on the part of the Republicans that we only needed the constitutionally allotted number of days for a short session, especially, since we had been in session so much last year. So, they would not vote to extend the session beyond 30 days. The Democrats said they could absolutely not get the session done in 30 days. As a result, we finished all of the Senate work, including the budget, and now are basically at crossover and transitioning to do all of the House work. We had a couple of days off because the electronic systems had to convert to a special session. We only had 3 days back in session this week. In that time we started doing House bills and we also did the budget. That is what I’m going to talk about today. In Virginia, as you all know, we have a balanced budget. We never spend more than we have. We are very committed to putting money into rainy-day reserves and putting it away. That’s what keeps our credit rating in VA triple-A. We’re one of only seven states that has that high of a credit rating. That is important because that means if we do get bonds or if we do have other transactions we have the best rates for those things going forward and it’s a place businesses want to come and do business. So, a balanced budget and that fiscal responsibility that we have is very good for Virginia. So, in that budget you have to prioritize how you’re going to spend money. I had lots of things I sought to put in the budget and I want to share with you a couple of things about the budget. You can use language in a budget to get an investigation or a study done. You can put money in the budget to achieve the goals of your bills. In the budget, too, you can put in language that supersedes any law. In Virginia, the budget language supersedes anything written in code.
So, the things that I particularly argued for to be in the budget this year include a lot of money for vaccine administration. You know I carried that legislation so that we could be much more efficient in our vaccination process. I also included money for communication on the vaccine. If I had to say one thing about our vaccination process it is that it is just a gaping abyss, that is people knowing where they stand on that list. So, they sign up and never hear again and they don’t even know if they’re signed up. There’s no confirmation email you get like if you purchase something online. So, we’ve got money in there for communication on that.
Auxiliary grants. These are the grants we give to assisted living homes to take care of people who are elderly and have no resources. They are abysmally underpaid. I had a particular event with an assisted living facility in the greater-Richmond area. They were under such duress under COVID because they had a hard time even getting food for their residents. So, we were able to get the auxiliary grant increased by 20%. That also helps with supportive housing, because people who are looking for supportive housing can apply for an auxiliary grant.
We talked a little bit about my legislation that helps schools help more children with school based services. That is funded in the budget. It actually, believe it or not, actually saves Virginia money. The way it saves money is that we’re drawing down additional federal dollars that they already told us we could have but we never collected. That is how we run the administration of that program. As a result, that particular budget amendment and that particular bill of mine actually saves Virginia money while getting $2.5-4 million more for local schools so that they can provide better services to kids and help them overcome their obstacles to learning.
We had disability waivers. We have an atrocious disability waiting list. We have over 3,000 on a “priority one” which means they need help now. These are people who need help to overcome disabilities or live in the community with their disabilities. We increased funding by 650 more waivers. I am always arguing to pay for all priority one waivers.
We’ve got ED Care Coordination. That’s a program I legislated several years ago where the emergency rooms all talk to each other and they talk to the primary care providers in the area. They also talk to the prescription monitoring program. It's a way to make sure people are actually getting the care they need and we don’t duplicate it. If someone goes to the emergency room and has an X-ray and they show up a couple of days later in the other emergency room those emergency rooms coordinate and share that information so that we don’t repeat unnecessary tests, add potential risk, and increase cost. So, ED Care Coordination got the funding they need to keep expanding that program and making it stronger.
We’ve got kinship, guardianship assistance. These are families like grandparents that take in their grandchildren. This is a huge problem with the opiate crisis. In the past, they were not treated like any other foster care family and supported with income. They were, instead, left to their own resources. Last year I worked hard to make sure they could qualify for full foster care support and some additional funding went to that program. Finally, some administrative redundancy in Medicaid where we had two separate plans that had all of these insurance policies in it and two different departments to run it. Those are now merged which is another small government, efficiency that I’ve been working on for, honestly, 6 years. So, I'm really excited to see that get into the budget.
When we talk about education we talk about open schools of course. Again, I just told you the budget supersedes any other law in Virginia. If it’s in the budget it has to be done. Open schools is in the budget. The same language of my bill. School must be open and must provide in-person education. That is based on the preference of the parent. So, that is in and we will talk about those bills because they’re coming up in the House this week.
We’ve got the Special Education bill that I told you about. The program had such an abysmal review last year. We have the changes and the funding in the budget to fix Special Education in Virginia. Something that I’m really excited about and you’ve probably heard me talk about before is “Passport Credits.” Early in my time at the legislature I carried legislation to make all of the community colleges standardize a core curriculum of 30 credits and to have the 4-year universities look at that curriculum and make sure they all agreed. So, if you got that English class you never had to repeat it. That’s to save money and improve efficiencies. Now, all across Virginia, if you get one of those core curriculum, called Passport Credits, you have guaranteed acceptance (of that course) at any other community college or 4-year institution. Well, it's time to take those college credits back to high school and dual-enrollment. We will have dual-enrollment credits that are guaranteed to reduce your child’s time that they need to spend getting their degree, whether they get a degree at the community college or at a 4-year college. So, that’s just kind of the next phase of that concept and legislation.
We have virtual education funding so that we can improve the programs we have and keep those present. Maybe, when we get out of COVID your kid wants to take Mandarin but Henrico County doesn’t offer it. You can get that in virtual education. I’ve carried legislation this year for diagnostic testing where we actually look and see how are kids performing when get back to school in the Fall. We measure again in December. In the Spring, they have a progress assessment. This replaces the SOLs. No more scary, end of the year, high liability testing. This is going to be testing that uses the things we want kids to know but assesses where they are and it proves that we’re actually helping them progress because we’re measuring it 3 times. It also gives us time to remediate those kids and, indeed, there is learning loss instruction funding for $30 million for Virginia next year so that we can help the kids overcome the learning loss they’ve had during COVID.
We’ve got some studies going on to look and see how kids are doing with their school based service because we have evidence that they haven’t been very effective and now that we’re going to spend more money we want to make sure it is money well spent. We have additional teachers raises of 3%. We have funding for specialized teachers positions. I think this is really important. We have got to have student focused positions that are psychologists. Counselors are separate and we did fund for more counselors but, behaviorists, nurses, and for any of those kinds of wrap-around services we need for kids in schools. If you target each one of those it becomes hard to manage at the state level. So, what we’ve got is specialized education positions so schools can choose which of those services they need. We’ve got some further alignment. You know, we want to be able to make sure kids can align with the workforce and they can choose education that gets them a good job in a field that they like. That takes a lot more interaction and information than our kids currently have, so, for years I’ve been working on getting a workforce portal that can help us do that. We’ve got more steps in that process as we do some studies.
There are some things in the budget I did not support. That would include the rapid expansion of the Court of Appeals which is really increasing it by 50%. This is really controversial. It is something that the Democrats have pushed hard for. It seems like a lot more litigation and it feels like there are a lot of assertions that this is stacking the courts. They’re going to be appointing people who have, maybe, a different agenda than what we want, which is just interpreting the law. I hope that is not true, but because of the uncertainty, I could not support that. We also have a study that they’re doing on the expungement of past convictions. So, I fully believe in people getting a second chance, restoration of rights. When you’ve served your time you have done your time and you deserve a second chance. I think we ought to make that process very simple. Republicans have carried that legislation several times but expungement has a lot of liability. If somebody, for instance, embezzled and they are then going for a new job and that is expunged, that new job may not know they have a risk there. I’m not sure expungement is the right thing to do. I’m also a little bit worried about a plan they have to reform taxes. I truly believe our tax process needs to be reformed with the idea that we need to make it more efficient, less cumbersome, and less expensive. There are so many hidden taxes where people are made to pay fees and do all these other things. It is this very confusing math as to how we put together this state budget. I think there is an opportunity to do better on that and make it less of a burden to people. I’m very worried they’re just going to look at increasing taxes. As long as I've been here they’ve talked about how we need to increase taxes. Those are things I did not support.
On my legislation going forward, tomorrow at 7a.m. I have 3 bills up. One is the Special Ed bill that I told you about. One is the diagnostic education bill. There is a different bill on diagnostic assessments in the House. I expect that they’re going to put that bill on mine and replace my language with that language. I have already replaced their language with my language on the House bill in the Senate. Then, at the end of the session, we’ll get together and map out what the compromise is and what we go forward with. The big difference is that my bill measures a child in the Fall, measures a child in the Winter, and has a progress test in the Spring. The other bill has a diagnostic assessment in the Fall, not in the winter, and one in the Spring. I really think hitting those benchmarks helps us be accountable for keeping the kids on task. If you know a kid is behind and you don’t fix that by December you have another bite at the apple. It is also accountability that we’re actually getting to those kids. That’s that bill. Open schools is to be heard tomorrow in the House. I'm not sure what’s going to happen with that bill. I have a feeling they’re going to try and kill that bill or succeed in killing that bill. If not tomorrow, then in the not too distant future. Here’s the good news: It’s in the budget. Budget supersedes code. So even if they kill that bill the fight is not done. We will still be fighting to make sure those schools get open at the discretion of the parents whether it be in-person or virtual. It’s parents' choice. The parents are the best people to decide what is in the best interest of that child.
So, that is a quick assessment of the week and what we’re looking at going forward. I’m going to look and see if there are any questions. I haven’t seen anything sent over by my team but I’m going to give them a second to text me stuff in case you guys have come up with questions. If not, we’ll make it easy since it is Valentines and we can all go and enjoy a little leisure and home time. I hope you and yours have a beautiful day and you remember how valuable the love of your family is. It definitely means the world to me. Take care everyone. Glad to be quick. I'll see you next week. Take care. Bye.