A Busy Session In Richmond

A Busy Session In Richmond

NATURAL BRIDGE STATE PARK received a much-needed boost from the General Assembly this session when five positions were added to its staff. (Joann Ware photo)

The General Assembly last week managed to complete its regular legislative session with just a one-day extension, take a three-day break, then adopt a two-year $135 billion budget. The last of these occurred on Thursday, just before state and local directives shut down the schools and pretty much everything else due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Having no sports or nearly any other type of entertainment to enjoy, we’ve had plenty of time to contemplate just what our state lawmakers may have accomplished this year. The 2020 session was a flurry of activity, with Democrats in charge of the House of Delegates and state Senate for the first time in decades. A lot of legislation that had been blocked repeatedly from even floor votes in past years managed to make it out of committees, pass both houses and go to Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, for his signature.

At the forefront of the Democrats’ legislative victories was passage of seven of eight gun control measures that had been touted by Northam. These included universal background checks, a red flag law establishing a legal process to remove firearms from people who pose a risk, reinstatement of the one handgun purchase per month limit, keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, stiffer penalties for leaving loaded, unsecured firearms around children, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms and giving localities the authority to restrict firearms from certain public places.

The only gun bill pushed by Northam that didn’t pass was a proposed ban on assault rifles. Sen. Creigh Deeds, who represents the Rockbridge area, was among the members of the Judiciary Committee who blocked this bill from reaching the Senate floor this year. This bill did pass the House of Delegates.

Legislators raised the gasoline tax by a nickel in each of the next two years and, after that, put in place a process to adjust the rate annually to keep pace with inflation, so that the state will have sustainable transportation funding in the future. The tax increase is on top of regional gas taxes adopted previously such as one to provide funding for improvements to Interstate 81. There is expected to be sufficient funding to double passenger rail service over the next decade.

We are encouraged that legislators are continuing to enact reforms to the state’s mental health system — initiatives that were advocated by Deeds. Funding was provided for community-based mental health services and long-term supportive housing.

We applaud lawmakers for adopting “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back,” an initiative of the governor to provide free tuition for low-to-medium-income students to study high-demand fields at community colleges.

Deeds and Del. Ronnie Campbell, who also represents the Rockbridge area, were able to secure much-needed funding to add five positions to the Natural Bridge State Park. This is intended to bring staffing up to the level of other comparable state parks. Unfortunately, our local legislators were unable to get any funding for the Virginia Horse Center, though language was included in the budget bill to review the relationship between the state and the horse center.

Also of note locally was the adoption of legislation introduced by Deeds and Campbell that is to bring scenic river designation to the upper 19.3-mile stretch of the Maury River. This measure is to help preserve the scenic beauty of this important natural resource in Rockbridge County.

While the just-completed legislative session was a productive one, a word of caution must be made in reference to budgetary accomplishments. The unfolding coronavirus crisis that’s significantly hampering the economy is more than likely going to prompt legislators to tamp down budget projections. Budget amendments may be in order when legislators reconvene for the veto session next month.

The News-Gazette

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