Dear Friend —

Well, the 2018 Session of the Virginia General Assembly has adjourned sine die.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we have finished our work for the year.  A little matter of the $120 billion state budget needs to be resolved before we can officially wrap up our work for the year.


In this email I want to update you on some of my work during this Session.  In my next email I will update you on some of the other major issues that were debated, and will give you more information on the state of the budget negotiations as we head into overtime.


My priorities in Richmond continue to be education, transportation and public safety.  This year on the education front, I continued the battle to drop a lifeline to families and children in a handful of localities with failing school systems.  In these areas we really need to increase access to charter schools.  Unfortunately, that reform effort fell short again this year, again facing opposition from the VEA and others in the education establishment.


In the higher education arena, I am deeply concerned by the rapidly rising amount of student debt and the increasing default rate.  This year, I introduced SB 568, which overwhelmingly passed, that will require colleges and universities to annually provide to each student a disclosure, listing their total student loan amount, the principle and interest that will be due over the term of the loan, and the monthly repayment amounts.  I think it is important for financial aid offices to do more than simply facilitate more and more loans.  They should also make sure that the students understand the extent of their repayment obligations and factor that into their academic planning so that they can develop a strategy for repayment of those loans. 


On other fronts, I have continued to work with victims’ rights advocates to make sure that crime victims receive restitution that is due to them.  Currently, there is over $200 million in unpaid restitution obligations and little is being done to help crime victims recover those court ordered payments.  Working together with Delegate Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) and with bipartisan cooperation from Senator Janet Howell (D - Reston) and the Northam administration, we secured passage of groundbreaking restitution legislation this year that will help crime victims actually receive restitution payments that are due to them.  


We also passed legislation requiring DNA samples from persons convicted of certain misdemeanors that the Virginia State Crime Commission determined are predictive of future violent felonious behavior.  Legislation like this would have given law enforcement the means to have prevented the murders of two young coeds in Charlottesville over the past few years. You can read more about the DNA bills here and here.


Finally, working with the entire General Assembly delegation along the Interstate 81 corridor, with the Secretary of Transportation, Shannon Valentine and with my co-patron Senator Bill Carrico (R-Grayson), I introduced legislation calling on the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Commonwealth Transportation Board to study necessary improvements to Interstate 81 and how to pay for them.  The bill specifically calls for VDOT to examine tolling heavy trucks that now constitute a huge percentage of traffic on the interstate.  The legislation recognizes the large number of commuters who rely on the interstate to get to and from work from tolls and the importance of protecting them from the burden of tolls.  It also asks VDOT to make sure that any tolls that may be imposed on heavy trucks will not have an adverse economic impact on business, agriculture and commerce in the Shenandoah Valley. The study will be completed by January 2019.  


I will follow this email with two additional reports in the coming days to discuss other major developments during Session and the status of budget negotiations and the Medicaid debate. We head back to Richmond on April 11 as Governor Northam has called a Special Session to work on the budget.  The failure to reach a budget agreement during the regular Session was not entirely unexpected.  In four of the five previous years when the General Assembly adjourned without a budget agreement, the differences between the House and Senate plans was not just how money was spent, but how much money was spent.  This year, there is an enormous gap – over $3 billion – between what the House and Senate budgets spend.


The underlying issue, whether or not to implement Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, has created a gulf between the two spending plans.  The Senate plan is based on money the state has, while the House’s plan is dependent upon federal funding from a program the Trump Administration has pledged to end.


My fellow Republican colleagues in the Senate did everything possible to keep the session going to try to reach an agreement.  First, we voted to extend the session by 30 days, as permitted by the Constitution of Virginia.  But, we needed two-thirds of the senators to vote for that extension and none of the Democrats would agree to an extension.  Then, we voted to extend the session for just three days.  Again, Democrat senators voted “no.”


It is too soon to tell whether this process will take days, weeks, or months.  The two most recent budget impasses that were based on large disagreements on revenues and spending lasted until June.  I am confident that this divide will be bridged.  I will continue to stand in support of a conservative budget that does not increase taxes.


The reconvened, or “Veto” session will be April 18 in Richmond. Although the special and veto session will require special trips back to the Capitol, we will be back at home in the district most of the time from now on.  You can still email us at mark@markobenshain.com or call us at (540) 437-1451.


It is a distinct honor to serve the citizens of the Shenandoah Valley in the Senate.  I am grateful for your friendship and confidence and I thank you for allowing me to represent you.     


Best regards,

 
Mark Obenshain


            

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