Monday, January 9, 2017

Ready or Not, Here We Go!

The 2017 session of Virginia’s General Assembly will begin at noon on Wednesday, January 11th when the gavel goes down in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. This is an odd numbered year, which means a “short” session of only 45 days. Don’t be fooled, though. I have found that the short sessions can be just as manic as a long session, and this one seems to be getting ready to prove my theory. VEA leadership and staff have been working hard meeting with members, talking to legislators, reviewing bills, and attending meetings as we get ready for what will likely be another tough session for our public schools.

As you may know, there have been changes at VEA during the last few months. Meg Gruber’s term as VEA President ended and Robley Jones, our long-time Director of Government Relations and our chief lobbyist, retired. Jim Livingston is VEA’s President and I’m Kathy Burcher, your new GR Director. So while there are new faces, the mission has not changed. The Daily Reports from the General Assembly will also continue with some new perspective and some new voices. While I will write many of our blog entries, be on the look-out for some special General Assembly reports from Jim Livingston, our Lobby Cadre, and our members.

So back to this session. Virginia’s budget has cast a long shadow. For many reasons that are still being studied and evaluated, Virginia’s revenues have come in below forecast. This has created a budget “hole” of just about $1.5 billion over the course of the 2016-2018 biennial budget. The Governor and, ultimately, the General Assembly must figure out how to fill the hole and balance the budget. As you know the state support for teacher salary increases scheduled in the first year of the biennium were tied to a revenue reserve. This “reserve” was required by law to revert back to the general fund if Virginia came up short on revenue forecasts. Virginia did, and the salary increase went into the budget hole as filler.

In his budget amendments, Governor McAuliffe did protect Direct Aid to K-12 from any additional cuts, and we are grateful for that. I am not sure how much more cutting our schools can take. The Governor also proposed a 1.5% one-time bonus for SOQ funded positions that would be paid in December 2017. While the idea of a bonus sounds great, it will take some tricky funding magic at the local level for that to play out and pay out. The VEA is committed to salary increases rather than one-time bonuses and we will work to get the increases prioritized. There are all sorts of rumors that we will see efforts to reinstate the salary increases that were cut. We shall see.

In the absence of money, legislators love policy changes and, so far, that seems to be the case. We will, once again, play defense on a number of bills including Parental Educational Savings Plans (a voucher), an expansion of for-profit virtual schools, and charters. Senator Obenshain has filed a Constitutional Amendment that would allow the State Board of Education to establish charter schools. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the VEA killed this effort last session. In order to change Virginia’s Constitution, a bill must pass one session, followed by an intervening election of the House of Delegates, then pass the session after the election. Had last year’s bill passed, we would have had a Charter School Constitutional question on the ballot this past November. The bill failed to pass the second year, but Senator Obenshain is willing to try again. The bill will need to pass this session, the House is up for election this fall, and then pass next session. We will work to kill it this year. So far, there is no House version of the bill, so this fight will focus on the Senate. Legislators can file bills until Wednesday, so we will see what drops.

As always, talk with your legislators, tell your stories. Your voice can make a difference.

I will have more updates tomorrow. By the way, tomorrow is Election Day for three General Assembly seats all of which are open because of General Assembly members being elected to Congress. The 85th district in the House of Delegates, and two seats in the VA Senate- the 9th and the 22nd- will be filled in Special Elections tomorrow. Specials can be tricky things, and turn out is everything. If you live in one of these districts, please vote. If you're not sure if you live in one of the districts you can click here to find out.