It’s that time of year. While most are consumed with thoughts about gifts for that impossible relative or honing survival skills for holiday parties, I find my mind preoccupied with Richmond and a new General Assembly session.
The 2017 election brought with it new candidates for the House of Representatives, many of whom emphasized the environment as a part of their platform. Most of these individuals were elected following a pledge to refuse money from Dominion. We were excited to see people running (and winning) against corporate influence from the state’s largest monopoly. We were also hopeful with the election of a new Governor, one that similarly seemed to embrace conservation and the environment as a major part of their platform. While there have been some signs from our new members of the House that they took their pledge seriously, we remain confused and concerned about where the Administration is heading.
No matter who resides in the Governor’s mansion, we know that disagreements will arise from time to time. But recent actions (or inaction) tied to the pipelines and the announcement of prioritization policies that could undermine useful broad-based conservation tools for the commonwealth, are cause for concern. We are hopeful that continued education and engagement will ultimately lead to superior policies. But, hope alone will not prevent bad ideas from taking hold. With this in mind, we ask you to join us in reaching out to your elected representatives and the administration during the upcoming weeks and months.
Short vs Long
The 2019 session starts on January 9, and it will be gone before you know it. Last year’s session, being an even year, was a “long session” at 60 days, and included the introduction of the biennial budget. In the odd years, we have a reduced or “short session” at 45 days. Changes to last year’s budget will come in the form of a new budget bill from the Governor. As well, many interests will seek to achieve their funding priorities by supporting additional amendments. This includes PEC and our partners in the conservation community who will focus on the conservation grant programs and water quality initiatives.
Conservation Funding & The Tax Credit
Sometimes it just comes down to money. This is especially true when it comes to the tools we rely on to aid in protecting communities and the environment. Meeting the Commonwealth’s commitment on pollution reduction for the Chesapeake Bay means hitting targets for 2025. A lot remains to be done to achieve this end. The good news is these reductions can be met in a way that strengthens our agricultural industry and makes developed areas a part of the solution. In short, Virginia needs major investment in Agricultural Best Management Practices (Ag BMPs) and the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF).
Last year’s funding for Ag BMPs was roughly a third of what is required to meet the state commitment. Failing to meet the need in one session means shortages are passed along to the following years, bringing the current funding need to $100 million. Besides being the most cost-effective method we have to address pollution in the Bay and our local streams, Ag BMPs create a more sustainable agricultural industry and protect fisheries and the water we drink.
While more costly, stormwater improvement is an important sector lacking progress. Last year’s investment of $20 million statewide (less money than we spend to construct a single interchange) is indicative of our unwillingness to get serious about the problem. For this reason, we are supporting an increase to $50 million for SLAF.
Lastly, we are opposing changes to the Land Preservation Tax Credit (LPTC) and supporting full funding of our conservation grant programs. Since the creation of the LPTC, we have witnessed a more than eight- fold increase in the rate of land protected with conservation easements. While we do not expect a reduction in funding for the tax credit, we have heard of legislative changes that cause some concern (stay tuned), and there is the unresolved issue of the individual claim which was supposed to increase from $20,000 to $50,000 three years ago — something we will be pushing for this year.
Supplementing the tax credit are our three main grant programs for conservation — Farmland Preservation Fund, Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund. These grants should, according to Virginia Code, receive $20 million per year. We have some hope for an increase from last year’s budget (which was less than $6 million) in this year’s budget (December 18 release). However, we doubt we will see full funding and remain ready to place amendments with legislators.
Land Use, Transportation and Energy
Beyond funding, we are aware of at least one bill that will require our attention — proffer reform. Proffers, simply put, are promises made by the developer to a locality to help offset the costs to service a particular development (schools, police, fire and rescue, parks, etc). While not perfect, they are the best tool provided by the state. The homebuilders are finally recognizing their legislative overstep from the 2015 session — a bill that largely made proffers unusable and leading many localities to deny recent proposals (the opposite of their intent). To “correct” this, they have put forward legislation that makes changes around the margins, but it fails to address major flaws with the original bill. We will be opposing this new bill and asking the state to consider revisiting a past conversation: proffers versus impact fees. Rather than allowing the fox to write the legislation regarding the henhouse, we would ask for a more inclusive process, one that includes all parties: localities, developers, organizations and interested citizens.
On matters related to transportation, we will continue to protect the smart-scale scoring process. We have been alerted to the possibility of new funding mechanisms that would side-step this process, essentially reinserting politics into transportation decision making. Whether it is an interstate or a state route, we can ill afford a return to inefficient and politically driven transportation spending. As well, we will be paying special attention to the promotion of individual projects, like last year’s reintroduction to an eastern bypass of Route 29.
With regard to energy policy, we will remain focused on keeping Dominion in check, promoting energy efficiency and the removal of barriers to rooftop solar. Additionally, we will be supporting our partners in their pursuit of the clean closure of coal ash ponds, as well as policies to address climate change. Perhaps the most promising of which is the push to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. However, the details and planned use of the proceeds will be important. We believe resulting revenue should not be spent solely on coastal resiliency, and should include a major investment in energy efficiency to be effective. We will also continue ongoing efforts to get the state to take a more active role in developing best practices related to large-scale utility solar siting. Lastly, we will be watching for any remaining issues related to last year’s confusion on the use of mitigation monies. Our legislature should not be looking to mitigation money to o set existing budget shortfalls or conservation responsibilities.
Some of you may have joined us at one of our watch parties for the Virginia Conservation Network’s General Assembly Preview on December 1, or may have attended the event in Richmond. While this is a good primer on what we expect to see, as expressed in the preview, “we do not know what we do not know.” More details on legislation and the budget will be coming fast and furious between drafting this article and the first week of session. For this reason, we ask that you follow our action alerts and updates and consider joining the community at the VCN Lobby Day scheduled for Wednesday, January 30. Visit vcnva.org/learn for more information now and throughout session.
In closing, I want to thank all of our members for your support on our issues and amplifying our voice with the legislature. As well, your donations allow me to continue to be a presence in Richmond and an advocate on your behalf. I wish you the best for the holidays and in the New Year.
This article was featured in our Winter 2018 member newsletter, The Piedmont View.