The 2019 General Assembly session served as a stark reminder of an important lesson: Leadership matters. The controversies surrounding the executive branch brought chaos and embarrassment, while the steady leadership of the Republican-led General Assembly delivered meaningful results.
This session was marked by the scandals embroiling our governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. Regardless of your political views, the pain our commonwealth has felt over the past month seemed at times unbearable.
But, even as Jefferson’s Capitol served as a home for dozens of reporters in search of the next big tip, the work of the oldest continuously elected legislative body in the New World proceeded without interruption.
Committee meetings took place. Constituents were served. Legislation was heard, considered, and debated. Bills were passed. The budget was balanced. When the General Assembly adjourned last Sunday, it was clear the House and Senate brought stable leadership and delivered results on the issues that matter most at a time when the commonwealth needed it most.
That leadership starts with tax relief. The General Assembly passed, and the governor has now signed, a nearly $1 billion tax relief plan. Our plan increases the standard deduction by 50 percent, and provides rebate checks of up to $110 for individuals and $220 for married couples. Altogether, a typical family will see $393 in tax relief over the next two years. That is meaningful tax relief.
Providing tax relief meant unwinding more than $1 billion in new spending proposed by Governor Northam and the Democrats. Instead, the General Assembly balanced the budget without raising taxes.
The budget includes funding for a 5 percent teacher pay raise and $85.7 million in new funding for public education, on top of more than $400 million in investments made last year. The budget also provides $19 million for broadband funding and $57 million to freeze tuition at our colleges and universities. We funded $12 million in new school safety initiatives that, when combined with the legislative reforms passed this year, will help make our kids safer in schools.
And, not to be forgotten, we are putting more than $565 million in our state savings accounts, bringing our total reserve funds to nearly $1.5 billion just three years after a major economic setback. This fiscally responsible leadership will protect our AAA bond rating and make sure we are well prepared for the next economic downturn. The many accomplishments of the 2019 General Assembly session don’t stop at budgeting and taxes.
We passed legislation to ensure that children and adults with autism have access to health insurance. We passed legislation to help end the teen use of tobacco products by raising the smoking age to 21. We stiffened penalties for human trafficking and adopted tougher sentences for those who commit capital murder. We passed legislation to clean up coal ash across Virginia in a way that keeps our water and environment safe.
Through a series of bills passed this year, Virginia is building out a massive “tech-talent pipeline” that will give our students the right skills to succeed in the high-tech jobs that companies like Amazon and Micron are bringing to Virginia. These transformative ideas will keep our economy growing, raising wages for everyone.
We also passed a package of legislation to lower health insurance costs, improve transparency in billing, and ensure better care. We know health care costs are important to small businesses, families, young people, and senior citizens.
I call these type of issues “kitchen table issues” because they are problems families talk about on a daily basis while sitting around the dinner table. They’re the issues I heard about while knocking on doors in my community just this past week. Families are looking to Richmond to make their lives just a little easier. That’s the kind of leadership they expect and deserve.
Virginia has weathered 400 years of storms and the past two months remind us that in both the good and bad times, leadership matters. The General Assembly led this year, and succeeded despite the storm clouds swirling around the executive branch.
Voters going to the polls this fall will have a strong point of reference by which to judge their choices. Leadership matters. As long as Republicans continue to lead the General Assembly, the people of the commonwealth can count on steady hands to deliver on the issues they care about most.
A version of this commentary first appeared in the March 2 issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
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