On February 27, the 2015 General Assembly Session adjourned, one day earlier than scheduled. Since I’ve returned home from Richmond, many of my constituents have asked me exactly what the 2015 legislative session was all about. The 2015 session was one of the most productive and successful sessions in recent memory. We worked across the aisle to help create jobs and improve Virginia’s economy, improve K-12 education, make college more affordable, and protect our most vulnerable.
As Virginia’s economy continues to improve, we made job creation and economic improvement a top priority. The General Assembly approved legislation allowing innovative transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to safely operate in Virginia and legislation to make it possible for entrepreneurs to participate in crowdfunding to help get the funding they need to start and grow. I was personally pleased to lead the effort to protect Virginia’s right to work laws and take us a step closer to making right to work a part of Virginia’s constitution. We also passed legislation to prevent localities from setting job killing wage floors that eliminate jobs from those who can least afford to lose them. Over the last several years Virginia has consistently remained among the top states for business and the passage of these and other bills will help keep it there.
Every child in Virginia deserves the best education possible, and we have worked to give parents the flexibility to make the right choices for their families. I was pleased to patron legislation that established the Virginia Virtual School, which allows access to a public full time virtual program for K-12 students. For the first time this year both houses passed a constitutional amendment that grants the Board of Education the authority to establish charter schools within the school divisions of the Commonwealth. Across the country there are successful models for charter and virtual schools, and it is time that Virginia takes its place among the leaders in this field.
We also continued on our work in K-12 education reform by advancing legislation that will improve our SOL tests, streamline the retake process, give schools more flexibility in the accreditation process, and require colleges to develop a standardized system for granting credits to incoming students who have successfully completed AP courses. Additionally, for the first time since it was introduced twenty years ago, legislation to allow Virginia’s 32,000 homeschooled students to participate in extracurricular school activities is headed to the Governor’s desk.
In an effort to ensure that our teachers and students are able to continue to succeed in the classroom, we have also made targeted financial investments in K-12 education. This includes funding the state portion of a 1.5% teacher pay raise and increased funding for professional development. We also deposited $193 million into the teacher retirement fund.
Rising college costs are not a problem that is unique to Virginia students, but this year the General Assembly made this one of our priorities. We passed a number of common sense solutions that will help hold down those costs and increase access to higher education in Virginia. This included legislation that would cap unreasonable mandatory student fees, encourage colleges to offer “flat-fee” degrees, and establish a more affordable, $4,000 per year online degree program for Virginia students.
Another factor in the ever growing amount of student debt is that students and their families aren’t always fully aware of the costs of their higher education choice. To help counter this problem, I was proud to support legislation that would require Virginia colleges and universities to publish information about the costs, graduation rates, and other relevant information on their website. This should be a huge step forward in ensuring that parents and students can make fully informed decisions with regard to their choice of college.
This year we also continued to build on our work to strengthen the healthcare safety net for those who are most in need. We specifically provided funding for targeted services to nearly 22,000 seriously mentally ill patients and increased funding for children’s psychiatry and crisis services. We nearly doubled operational funding for free clinics, which provide critical services to our most vulnerable populations. We also provided a total of $9 million for housing and homelessness, with a portion of this specifically targeted for rapid re-housing of our homeless veterans.
Under Republican leadership in both chambers, we were able to adjourn ahead of schedule for the first time in 15 years. We were also able to pass a budget ahead of schedule while still giving the public, the press, and the legislature 48 hours to view the budget prior to the final vote. This, along with the previously listed accomplishments, is the type of leadership that Virginians want and deserve, and stands in stark contrast to the partisan gridlock in Washington.
Dickie Bell is the delegate for the 20th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates