Lawmakers from across the commonwealth will converge in Richmond Wednesday for the 2015 General Assembly.
As your delegate and speaker of the House, I am immensely proud of the consistent leadership the House has offered over the last decade. We have led the effort to create jobs and grow our economy, invest in and improve our schools and make Virginia a better place for families to live. We will redouble those efforts this year.
Our approach to governing works. We have built a record of results that speaks for itself.
Virginia’s economy is fundamentally strong. We have the 46th lowest tax burden in the nation and our unemployment rate ranks as the best in the region.
Our public schools are among the best in the nation. Education Week ranks Virginia in the top 10 in five of six major categories. We have some of the finest colleges and universities in the world, including five schools listed in the top 100 public schools, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Two years ago we made a historic investment in transportation and last year we created a standardized system to make sure we spend that money wisely by focusing on the transportation projects that help Virginians the most. These efforts will ensure that Virginia has the roads and highways to not only get you where you need to go, but also help attract new businesses that create jobs.
Virginia is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s best-managed states. We balance our budget as the Constitution requires, invest in the core functions of government and wisely protect taxpayer resources. We are one of only 10 states with a Triple-A bond rating from all three major credit agencies.
Despite this success, there are always challenges ahead. The 2015 General Assembly will have an opportunity to address these challenges.
At the forefront of our efforts will be jobs and the economy. Our state is at an economic crossroads. Federal tax increases, sequestration and other cuts to government spending uniquely hurt Virginia’s economy. Right now, Virginia is growing more slowly than the rest of the nation. Sequestration has cut economic productivity by about $9 billion. We must provide new opportunities for growth and economic success. Our middle-class families need good-paying jobs with long-term stability.
One of the best ways to tackle our economic challenges is through education. The House of Delegates will push proposals to strengthen our public schools and make college more affordable.
Our focus in K–12 education will be on classroom success. We will propose increasing teacher professional development, additional reforms to the Standards of Learning and eliminating unnecessary red tape. Specifically, Del. Tag Greason will propose eliminating the requirement that good schools seek re-accreditation every year. We believe that schools with a long track record of success should have more flexibility and be allowed to seek accreditation every three to five years. The House will also push for the development of SOL tests that combine subjects like math, science and reading so we can promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
College education is important, too. Virginia has great colleges and universities, but they are simply becoming too expensive for students and families. Majority Leader Kirk Cox introduced legislation to cap the cost of student athletic fees, which should drive down the cost of higher education. This is a first step, and we need to do more.
The House of Delegates will also help secure Virginia’s long-term economic future by balancing the budget without new taxes or fees, and without expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Medicaid expansion would enroll as many as 400,000 Virginians into a vast new entitlement system at a cost of nearly $2 billion per year, a large chunk of which could be left to Virginia taxpayers. That’s simply unacceptable. Instead of expanding a broken system, the House will strengthen the health care safety net by proposing increased funding for free clinics and community health centers and by proposing additional measures that increase access to primary care.
Finally, I will continue my efforts to strengthen Virginia’s state retirement system through market reforms. I believe we should give state employees more options and more control over their retirement. I will support legislation that develops a roadmap for these reforms and look forward to continuing this multi-year effort.
The General Assembly will, of course, also address a number of other issues ranging from ethics reform, to veterans health care to safety on college campuses. These are important items that I look forward to discussing over the next six weeks.
Again, I am very proud of what Virginia has accomplished in recent years and optimistic about the opportunities we have moving forward. It is an honor and privilege to represent you in the General Assembly. I look forward to another productive session.
William J. Howell is speaker of the House of Delegates and represents the 28th House of Delegates District.