Assembly OKs NBSP Staffing Request

The state budget that passed the General Assembly this past Thursday included $376,364 in each year of the biennium to fund five new positions at Natural Bridge State Park.

Sen. Creigh Deeds and Del. Ronnie Campbell each sponsored legislation for this funding, which was kept in the budget passed by the Senate and then retained in the final budget adopted by both chambers. The objective, according to language in the document, is for Natural Bridge to have “the same level of programming and quality of service as other state parks that are similar in size and complexity of operation.”

The Rockbridge area’s two legislators were unsuccessful in obtaining funding for the Virginia Horse Center, though the final budget does contain language from a Deeds bill that calls for starting a process to review the relationship between the state and the horse center. As originally envisioned, the state provided funding for capital projects at the equine facility, but the practice ceased years ago.

The budget includes funding for 2 percent pay raises for teachers in each of the next two years, and $2.1 billion in reserves for the state’s rainy day fund.

Funding is provided for “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back,” a new initiative proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam to pay for low-to-moderate-income students to study at community colleges in high-demand fields. College tuition is being frozen for another year in return for additional funding for higher education, including financial aid for students.

The budget provides funding for a dental benefit for adult Medicaid recipients. Community-based mental health services are also getting additional funding, as is long-term supportive housing. “From a policy standpoint, we can more efficiently and effectively serve people with mental illness in the community than in an institutional setting,” stated Deeds in his weekly newsletter.

Due to the current economic instability brought about by the coronovirus outbreak, the General Assembly will likely have additional budgetary matters to address when reconvening April 22 for the gubernatorial veto session.

The General Assembly completed its regular business on March 8, a day past its scheduled adjournment. With Democrats in control of both houses following last fall’s elections, they were able to push through many of their legislative priorities.

Universal background checks for firearm purchases was passed. Other gun control legislation adopted included limiting handgun purchases to one per month, a red flag law that provides for a legal process to remove firearms from people who pose a risk, increasing penalties for leaving loaded, unsecured firearms around children, requiring lost or stolen firearms to be reported and allowing localities to enact firearms restrictions in certain public places.

Transportation funding is getting a big boost. Legislation passed to increase the state gas tax by 5 cents in each of the next two years, bringing it to 21.2 cents per gallon on July 1 and 26.2 cents the following year. After that, the rate is to be adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation.

In conjunction with the gas tax hike, vehicle registration fees were reduced and a highway use fee was established for alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles. Legislators opted to retain the state’s annual vehicle safety inspections. (Northam had proposed eliminating them.)

A measure was passed to give localities the authority to remove Confederate statues, provided a notification process to receive public input is first undertaken. Legislators voted to do away with Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday and replace it with a state holiday on Election Day — the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.

Legislation was adopted to give counties the power to impose taxes on cigarettes, tourism and events. Cities already have this taxing authority.

The state’s minimum wage will increase incrementally over the next several years under legislation that was passed. It will be raised to $9.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2021, and $12 an hour on Jan. 1, 2023. While there is currently a uniform minimum wage across the state, a study is to be conducted in 2022 to review the possibility of establishing regional minimum wages.

It went down to the wire but the House of Delegates approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan commission to redraw congressional and state legislative districts. The Senate passed the measure earlier in the session. Having been passed last year and now this year by the General Assembly, the constitutional amendment will go before voters in a referendum this November.

The General Assembly took an additional step to crack down on distracting driving by passing a bill to prohibit the use of handheld cellphones while driving. A bill to allow the use of speed cameras on some state roadways was approved, as was a measure to provide tougher penalties for reckless driving.

Marijuana decriminalization legislation was passed, setting a civil penalty for a first offense at $25. Expunging a charge from a person’s record if the case is dismissed was also approved, as was a bill calling for a study of legalizing marijuana.

Of local interest, legislation introduced by Deeds and Campbell to give scenic river designation to the 19.3-mile upper portion of the Maury River was passed.

The News-Gazette

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