It is March, a time when most people eagerly await the end of winter and embrace the first signs of spring. For me, the spring also marks the end of long days and nights spent walking the halls and occupying committee rooms in Richmond. The 2020 Virginia General Assembly session concluded on March 12, and by the time you read this, we will all be awaiting Governor Northam’s response to the legislation and budget passed by both houses.
This year’s session, being an even calendar year, was what we refer to as a “long session” (60 days vs 45) as it includes the discussion of a biennial budget. So, besides chasing down legislators on a slew of bills, we were also discussing the funding levels for some of the most important conservation programs and tools we rely on to protect the Piedmont. And this year we had an added twist as both the House and the Senate changed to Democratic majorities. Besides seeing many new faces in the legislature, this meant that the committees that consider the bills and the budget had a very different composition than in years past. This change created opportunities and challenges alike.
Our first look at the introduced budget from the governor showed improvements in some areas, including substantial funding increases for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. But it also showed weakness in its failure to provide full funding for Agricultural Best Management Practices or other critical tools like the Farmland Preservation Fund (for local PDR programs). But the introduced budget is only the framework and does not reflect the different priorities of the House and the Senate. Those priorities were hammered out in House Appropriations and Senate Finance over the last 60 days, including the reconciliation of the two budget bills by a conference committee—comprised of a select group of members from the two committees.
A Few Key Budget Numbers
Agricultural Best Management Practices
FUNDING NEEDS: Roughly $100 million/year
BUDGETED: $66.6 million and $10 million for technical assistance over a two-year period*
Virginia Land Conservation Foundation
FUNDING SPECIFIED IN CODE: $16 million/year
BUDGETED: $10 million/year*
Farmland Preservation Fund
FUNDING SPECIFIED IN CODE: $2 million/year
*Budgeted numbers reflect conference committee agreements. Final vote occured after this newsletterwent to press.
Stream Exclusion • We, along with our partners, participated in the discussion around the cattle stream exclusion and nutrient management plan bill. The restructured legislation continues Virginia’s voluntary approach to cattle-exclusion, and becomes a mandate in 2026 only if the commonwealth fails to meet water quality targets outlined in the bill. We believe the biggest limiting factor to achieving the watershed restoration goals for the Chesapeake Bay is the lack of funding for agricultural best management practices. It has never been more critical to increase the funding for our cost-share programs, which help farmers install practices, like fencing cattle out of streams, to improve water quality on the farm and downstream. Current budget numbers do not adequately address the need.
Conservation • Besides grant program funding, we were focused on preserving the integrity of the Land Preservation Tax Credit, preventing the breaking up of family lands, and strengthening conservation easement law. We are pleased to report that the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which would help protect heirs of family land from having their properties split up, passed with unanimous support. As well, we were able to defeat legislation that would have inserted another layer of bureaucracy into the easement process, creating delays and the potential to lose out on important conservation opportunities. Sadly, the Senate did not pass SB621, which would have ensured that disputes involving ambiguities in easement terms are resolved in favor of conservation.
Energy • This session, we supported the environmental community on larger initiatives, like the Virginia Clean Economy Act, while focusing our attention on improving the underlying utility regulatory structure through legislation like the Virginia Energy Reform Act, which would de-monopolize Virginia’s electricity system. That legislation was carried over until 2021 and remains a PEC priority. We are pleased, however, to report the passage of several bills. These include the Solar Freedom bill, removing barriers to small-scale solar; HB167, a bill on pipeline cost recovery; and HB528, a bill to restore authority to the SCC related to the payback period of retiring power plants. Lastly, we supported the Fair Energy Billing Act allowing the SCC to finally hold Virginia Electric Power Company accountable for over-earnings through a rate case for both generation and distribution. Unfortunately, that legislation failed to pass the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor.
Land Use and Transportation • This year marks one of the first in which I failed to see the dreaded words “Route 29 Bypass.” And while no bad idea ever truly dies, it was nice not to see an associated bill. Speaking of bad ideas, attacks on Smart Scale scoring were still the focus of some legislators as multiple bills were filed to weaken the scoring system. I am pleased to report that they all failed. Bills impacting localities’ ability to regulate or appropriately evaluate utility scale solar were also defeated, or amended in such a way as to remove major concerns. We also worked with Delegates Guzman and Webert on two bills related to the dumping of construction fill dirt on agricultural lands, one providing notice to localities and the other forming a working group to recommend changes to regulations and guidance. Both measures passed. Lastly, the transportation omnibus bill passed. As with any omnibus bill, we didn’t like everything. But the bill did include a lot of positives, including a record amount of new money for transit and rail.
As always, thank you for any action you took this session to improve the Commonwealth. Please feel free to follow up with me directly at email@example.com or 540-347-2334 ext. 7040, if you have questions on any of the bills or the final budget numbers.
Please visit pecva.org/richmond2020 for a more complete rundown of the legislation and budget items we were tracking this year
This article was featured in our Spring 2020 member newsletter, The Piedmont View.