Session Update: Sine Die Report

March 1, 2023

On Saturday we adjourned the 2023 General Assembly Session sine die. Despite a political divide in the Senate that blocked the progress of some common-sense policies that had advanced through the House, we were still successful in passing a variety of legislation that serves all Virginians.

Protecting Ratepayers
In recent years much of my focus has been on energy policy, and more specifically restoring State Corporation Commission (SCC) authority to help lower electric costs for Virginians. I’m pleased to report after significant negotiations, we passed a bill (HB 1770) that largely unties the hands of the SCC and allows them to do their job to set rates that protect ratepayers, while ensuring our utilities remain financially stable and able to invest to meet the needs of the grid. Among the highlights, it guarantees a larger portion of overearnings are to be returned to ratepayers, rather than allowing the utility (Dominion) to retain them. Further, it requires the utility to move a portion of the current rate adjustment clauses (RACs) to the base rate which should result in some net savings. I had carried a stand-alone bill on the RAC issue and was glad to see that component addressed in the conference report. Finally, after a two year transition period, it removes all limitations on the SCC’s ability to set the rate of return (profit margin) for the utility as they see fit. I know for many families electric bills have increased significantly in recent months. This legislation should put downward pressure on further increases, providing much needed relief.

Admittedly, it was not a perfect deal. For example, a provision that would have allowed the SCC to alter the timeline of plant closures required under the Clean Economy Act (VCEA) if they felt grid reliability would be threatened did not make it in the final deal. I had carried another stand-alone bill that focused on this issue. While it was included in the House version that had passed, unfortunately it was not in the final conference report.

Much like repealing the California Vehicle Emissions Mandate, I expect this is an area the General Assembly will be forced to address in the future to safeguard grid reliability and avoid rolling blackouts like are commonplace in California and third world countries. Forcing folks to sit in the dark or be stranded on the side of the road to maintain ideological purity and placate environmental fearmongers is not progress.

Meeting our Workforce Needs
In addition to the utility reform bill, one of the most significant accomplishments that secured bipartisan support was the passage of legislation (HB 2195) to consolidate all workforce programs under one centralized secretariat. Meeting the needs of employers and providing the resources for citizens to secure the training and credentials necessary to improve their circumstances has been a top priority of the Youngkin Administration. Unfortunately, it has been widely recognized that Virginia currently has a complicated maze of workforce related programs stretched across six cabinet secretariats and countless agencies. This leads to confusion for employers and job seekers. Reform and consolidation of our programs has been a long time coming as numerous reports and studies over the years have recommended it. This legislation underwent numerous revisions to address concerns and the final product received near unanimous support.

My Legislation
While this session was not without some personal disappointments, on the whole we had many successes on the legislation I patroned. In addition to the six bills headed to the Governor that I mentioned in my last update, I had three additional bills that successfully finished making their way through the General Assembly last week.

HB 1660 extends the Dairy Margin Coverage Premium Assistance Program for an additional five years. In the most recent VDACS analysis, this program has demonstrated its effectiveness at helping dairy farmers and securing additional environmental stewardship practices on our farms.

HB 2126 Grants electric utilities the ability to maintain gravel access roads permanently, provided certain environmental standards are met when they are constructed. Current regulations require that when these roads are built to install our maintain transmission lines, they are required to be torn up and “reclaimed” when the work on that specific project is completed. This adds costs for the utilities when they have to regularly reinstall and reclaim these roads. Further, regular land disturbance can lead to more environmental degradation than if the initial road, once installed, is left alone.

HB 2428 Puts in place standards that protect our kids from being marketed marijuana and other harmful psychoactive substances. The bill makes clear that no substance that is illegal, which currently includes marijuana, can be advertised whatsoever. However, it proactively adds protections in code in the event a retail market is established for marijuana in the future. Other states that have established a legal retail market without also enacting these standards have seen a proliferation of advertising that has inappropriately targeted kids. Regardless of how you feel about adult use of marijuana and related products, studies consistently show negative consequences when used by minors. This bill, if signed into law, will allow us to avoid the pitfalls of other states that have seen use among young people increase significantly.

Budget Update
As I’ve stated before, the Commonwealth’s spending plan is generally one of the most significant items we handle every session. It’s important to note Virginia adopts a biennial budget and therefore for the coming year we already have a budget in place. However, customarily we still adopt revisions to the budget in the odd year based on updated revenues and needs. Because of a budget surplus, we went into the session with roughly $3 billion additional to appropriate and potentially build on our efforts from last year to provide direct relief to taxpayers.

While as of last Friday it looked like budget negotiators had a tentative deal in place, unfortunately that fell apart when the Senate Democratic caucus balked. Instead, what we left Richmond with Saturday was a very narrow budget deal that only addressed a handful of items. It addresses the reporting error at the Department of Education to ensure every school division receives at least as much as they had been told last year. It also makes additional required appropriations to the Rainy-Day Fund and the Virginia Retirement System to ensure we maintain our top bond rating. Finally, it adds a supplement to the capitol fund to address some cost overruns for projects that have come about due to inflation in the construction industry.

Budget conferees have indicated they will continue to negotiate on a broader deal and I’m hopeful we can have one in place to vote on sooner rather than later.

Thanks Anna!
There’s a lot of folks that work behind the scenes to make our legislative process work. This includes Clerk’s office staff, Division of Legislative Services staff, the staff for each legislator, and last but not least, our House Pages! The page program consists of 13 and 14 year old students that stay in Richmond during session to provide a helping hand wherever needed and to learn more about their legislature.

This year the 26th District was well represented by Anna Webb (pictured directly below). I enjoyed getting to know Anna and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.

The end of the session was bittersweet this year as many of my colleagues have decided to retire at the end of the current term. I’ve built some great friendships over the years with these individuals and it’s sad to see them go, but I wish them well. All have been effective legislators and left a positive mark on the Commonwealth.

Among those retiring that I’ve served with for nearly the entire duration of my service are Delegates Rob Bell, Roxanne Robinson, James Edmunds, Margaret Ransone, Kathy Byron, and Ken Plum.