Good evening, I’m Senator Tommy Norment from James City County and the Senate Republican Leader. Thank you for sharing your time with us this evening; and for caring enough about the welfare of our Commonwealth to hear from your elected leaders. We, as Virginians can take enormous pride in our state’s history and heritage. In fact our state legislature, the General Assembly, is the world’s oldest freely elected legislative body in continuous service.
But, you did not send us to Richmond to languish in the past. You sent each of us here to face the challenges of today. And throughout this past election year, the Senate and House Republicans laid out in a series of news conferences a detailed and comprehensive agenda. Republicans told you what we would do; and tonight we are here to reaffirm our commitment to you.
We addressed real issues and offered real solutions. We did not promise you what we knew we could not deliver. To lay out that positive, problem solving legislative program is my good friend, the delightful lady from Virginia Beach, Delegate Terrie Suit.
Tonight, as we begin a new session of the Virginia General Assembly, our Commonwealth is better prepared to face challenging times than any state in the union. The record we have compiled and the policies we have enacted have brought real results for our citizens and positive recognition for our state. Virginia is now widely acknowledged as America’s best state for business, and we have both the awards and the strong economic foundation to prove it. We have been designated the Best Managed State and the state where children have the best opportunity to succeed in life. That’s something we all can be proud of.
Over several decades, under Governors and legislatures led by both parties, we have compiled a record that has garnered many accolades, and enacted innovative policies that have become a model for other states. All of these positive changes and reforms do not insulate us from the challenges facing our nation, but they do make Virginia uniquely equipped to confront uncertain times with a greater prospect for long-term prosperity than anywhere else in America.
Today marks the beginning of a new General Assembly. Just ten weeks ago, citizens across Virginia went to the polls to elect every member of the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. These legislators represent every region of the Commonwealth, and they bring with them to Richmond the concerns and hopes of the citizens they are entrusted to serve.
During the recent elections, Republican candidates took their agenda for change directly to the people of Virginia. We campaigned offering specific, detailed ideas on reforms to make our commonwealth stronger, bringing positive change to state government and delivering greater opportunity for all Virginians. Now, House and Senate Republicans are ready to enact that agenda, and we are actively reaching across the aisle to make those changes a reality.
For example, we are looking forward to working in a bipartisan manner with Governor Kaine in those areas where we share a common agenda. We are committed to enacting specific improvements in our mental health care system, and we will stand united with the Governor in our insistence that those reforms and quality improvements be enacted this year, during this General Assembly session. We are committed to continuing Virginia’s strong record of improvement in education, and we will appropriate the funding necessary to ensure the Standards of Quality initiative remains an effective model for ensuring Virginia’s public school children receive a world-class education. And, we are committed to providing property tax relief for our homeowners, and support a package of initiatives – including a Constitutional Amendment supported by the Governor – to provide that long overdue relief for Virginia’s families.
Virginia is host to the largest concentration of US Military in the nation. I represent a district with a significant population of active duty and retired service members. My own husband recently retired from the Navy SEALs after a 27-year military career. Our service members are actively engaged in combat action both in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as supporting operations in other parts of the world. Their families, living here in Virginia, are under tremendous daily stress. We understand and share the concerns of these families and those of our veterans. We will be offering a package of legislation to better address their needs and to remind these families that their sacrifices for our freedoms are worthy of honor and respect.
There are, of course, areas where our views differ from those of the Governor. We value the contribution that legal immigrants have made throughout Virginia’s history – and continue to make today. But, illegal immigration not only violates our laws, it effectively penalizes those who come to our nation legally, respecting and adhering to our nation’s rules and embracing our values while seeking to fulfill their dreams. Our package of reforms will make Virginia a more effective partner with the federal government in the effort to stem the tide of criminal illegal immigration, and to ensure that legal immigrants are rewarded with all the privileges of citizenship for which they have worked so hard and sacrificed so much.
These are just a portion of our priorities for this year’s General Assembly. We also have ambitious plans to protect our natural resources, to promote the production of alternative energy, to improve access to quality health care and increase its affordability, and to strengthen the ability of our law enforcement and public safety professionals to protect us from crime.
This year, Virginia will enact a new budget that will serve our commonwealth for the next two years. We have a great many concerns about the Governor's proposals for that spending plan. Senator Norment, who serves as Senate Republican Leader and is a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, will detail our priorities for a fiscally responsible budget that will allow Virginia to retain its status as America’s Best Managed State.
Terrie, thank you very much for that articulate explanation of our common agenda. You left just one final, but important topic to address: money.
How much money will be available under our current revenue structure and what is the very best way to spend it? Crafting a responsible two-year budget that meets legitimate needs is the biggest task ahead of us. As a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, I am proud that Virginia is ranked as the best state in the nation to raise a child and to conduct business. Those rankings were not achieved with state budgets either too stingy, or too spendthrift. We enjoy our relative good fortune to sound and responsible fiscal management. That is a legacy we must not squander.
The Governor has presented us with a proposed administrative budget that, like those of every previous governor, can be improved upon by legislative oversight. It is a budget that draws down our savings account – the Rainy Day Fund – by the maximum amount allowed by law. It is a budget that borrows so much money for construction projects that we would come perilously close to our credit limit. While it assumes no outright tax increases, there are a host of new and higher fees. And, it props up spending on new programs by drawing down $180 million in funds earmarked just last year – with the Governor’s agreement – for transportation.
Finally, it is a budget that assumes some Pollyanna economic conditions in the second year – a year in which we as legislators will still be here, but this Governor will have left office. Many state budget experts will tell you this could be a recipe for future budgetary woes. So, any new programs or projects have to meet the absolute highest standard of necessity. Our Republican consensus is that the mental health reforms may be the only area that clearly meets this test.
Terrie and I would delight in sitting here tonight, telling you, “all is well”. But, we have a higher commitment; a commitment to be honest and candid with you. Virginia is still an exceptional place to live, work, go to school, raise families or retire. Our job, as legislators, is to make certain it remains so. We can’t control the national economy, but we can control our own state budget. The budget you will see in March will surely be very different from the one you heard about tonight from the Governor. And, I promise you, it will be a superior budget.
In the 400 years since our founding at Jamestown, we have endured hardship, but have prospered and endured as Virginians. There are untold good years ahead for our beloved Commonwealth, if we remain faithful to our heritage of prudent, responsible and responsive government. You sent 73 Republican to Richmond to do just that, and we will.
So on behalf of our Republican caucuses; your fiscally responsible leaders, good night; and may God continue to bless this nation, this commonwealth and each of you.