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COLUMN — Drop boxes for ballots become permanent

The 2021 Session of the General Assembly is rapidly winding down. We are in the throes of the last week, and we have reached a budget agreement. Many bills remain up in the air. 

For the second time in my legislative career, I was involved in the final budget negotiations. Last year I was appointed to serve as a conferee on the caboose budget, i.e. the one that dealt with the last six months of the fiscal year. This year I was appointed a full conferee. It is an incredible honor that I have waited a long time for. 

Creigh Deeds

The budget negotiations involve small group meetings of a few legislators and staff focused on specific areas of the budget. I was a lead negotiator in the area of capital outlay and also was involved intimately in the health and human services portion of the budget. 

The final budget report includes a number of items of interest:

• A 5% pay increase for state employees and state-supported employees. This includes state troopers, deputy sheriffs, constitutional officers, and other state employees. The budget includes additional funding to begin addressing the pay compression issue at the Virginia State Police. The problem is that newer troopers come in at a higher rate of pay, such that long-term troopers may end up earning not much more than people with far less experience. The budget also includes funds to support raises for college faculty and our public school teachers. 

• An investment in a number of construction projects at colleges and universities including buildings at the University of Mary Washington, William and Mary, Virginia Tech, and the Virginia Community College System. 

• Funding to improve water quality, including for projects throughout the commonwealth to address the state’s commitment to stormwater management and for agricultural best management practices.

• One other major accomplishment, in the area of mental health services, was the restoration of funding to expand discharge planning at some of our jails with the highest percentage of inmates who are diagnosed with mental illness. We need to ensure folks have access to services to keep them in the community and well.

This week also saw the final passage of my legislation to make drop boxes permanent and to empower registrars to work with voters to cure minor defects in absentee ballots. Along with other changes we have made, I am hopeful we will see continued high participation in Virginia elections. Both the House and Senate have agreed to my bill that creates a permanent study commission focused on mental health. This is a significant accomplishment, as the Joint Subcommittee on Mental Health which I have chaired for the last seven years will expire at the end of this year. My bill to eliminate presumptions against bail also passed this week. Those who are charged with a crime are innocent until proven guilty, and these misguided provisions start with a presumption of guilt. 

I was disappointed that my recommendation to shift $100 million from reserves to the Virginia Employment Commission for benefits for the long-term unemployed was rejected. However, substantial changes to the unemployment system were made. In light of the fact that the system was just overwhelmed with claims during this pandemic, Delegate Sally Hudson introduced a bill that will allow forgiveness of certain overpayments that were made through no fault of the applicant. The bill went to conference and is still awaiting final action. 

Creigh Deeds is a Virginia State Senator in the 25th District where he has served since 2001. He may be contacted at district25@senate.virginia.gov.