Session kicks off

Published 7:59 pm Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Priorities: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced his legislative priorities in a press conference Tuesday. He was joined by, from left, Delegate Tag Greason (R-Potomac Falls); Delegate Barbara Comstock (R-McLean); Senator Jeff McWaters (R-Virginia Beach); Senator Steve Newman (R-Forest); Senator Steve Martin (R-Chesterfield); and Lieutenant Governor Bolling.

Legislators focus on financial issues

Suffolk legislators will spend a majority of their time focused on the state’s finances in the General Assembly session that begins today.

“Money, again, is going to be a major concern in this session of the legislature,” said Senator Fred Quayle, whose district includes a portion of Suffolk.

Quayle said revenues are improving modestly and are on target with estimates made last year. However, Gov. Bob McDonnell has made some recommendations to move money around to fund his own projects.

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“We have got to sort through all of that and decide what we’re willing to accept and what we’re going to have to change,” Quayle said. “That’s going to be a big focus for me in working with the Senate Finance Committee.”

Quayle is the third-ranking Republican on the committee.

The governor released a list of his priorities Tuesday, which largely focus on creating jobs, reforming financial policies and higher education, funding transportation and opposing “card check” legislation.

McDonnell also has proposed requiring all state employees to contribute 5 percent to their retirement in the Virginia Retirement System, as well as giving all state employees a 3-percent pay raise.

“I know that many state employees are already squealing about that,” Quayle said. However, he noted that Virginia is one of only four states that pays employees’ full contributions for them.

“It’s something we never should have started back in 1983,” Quayle said, calling the governor’s proposal a “long-range positive change” for the retirement program.

The Suffolk school system will be watching the budget situation closely for a number of different reasons, Quayle said. Employees will be concerned about the retirement funding debate, but the system also could be losing state aid.

Last year, the formula that dictates how much state aid each school system receives was due to be updated — a change that would have dealt a detrimental budget blow to a number of systems, including Suffolk’s. However, state legislators provided the additional funding to those school districts and planned to provide half the funding this year, giving the districts time to adjust to the change.

However, Quayle said, the governor has decided to take that money — about $57 million — for another project. The legislature will have to scramble to find the money to keep its promise, he said.

The transportation situation also will present a quandary to legislators. The governor plans to invest billions into transportation projects over the next three years — a choice that is expected to put thousands of Virginians to work. However, most of the money will be borrowed under the governor’s proposal.

“We are assured there will be ample money to make the debt service on these bonds,” Quayle said.

One fiscal issue that has affected Suffolk’s court system this year is the choice to leave vacant the seat of a retiring judge. In fact, about 20 courtroom benches statewide are empty in an effort to save money, Quayle said.

“It has put a bind on a number of jurisdictions,” Quayle said. “We’ve got to decide if we’re going to be able to deal with that.”

Quayle also mentioned some social issues that will have to be dealt with in this session, such as illegal immigration.

Delegate Chris Jones, whose district includes part of Suffolk, also has said he will be working largely on fiscal issues this term, including the issues surrounding retirement system reform, Medicare eligibility and economic development.

“About 70 percent of my time will be spent on the budget this year,” he said.