Beginning on Aug 18, the Virginia General Assembly entered a special session to focus on budget impacts related to the pandemic and calls for criminal justice and policing reforms as local and national unrest continued following the death of George Floyd. At the time of this writing, session is ongoing and many questions remain on the shape of the final budget and some of the legislative initiatives. Legislators intend to wrap up their work before the end of September.
Virginia’s projected pandemic-related budget deficit was much less than originally anticipated ($236 million vs. the $1+ billion shortfall originally projected). Therefore, Gov. Northam introduced a budget that calls for no additional cuts to conservation, even adding back some of the suspended monies from the reconvened session in March. This included restoration of funds to the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, as well as funding for the Water Quality Improvement Fund, which helps with technical assistance for landowners installing agricultural best management practices.
Most legislation focused on areas outside of conservation, but a few bills are of note. Perhaps the most disturbing was Senate Bill 5106 (Lewis), which would extend for two years various local land use approvals (plats, rezonings, special use permits and exceptions, etc.) that would have otherwise expired. Pushed by homebuilders and commercial developers hoping to take advantage of the pandemic, the bill represents a state override of local authority and ignores the fact there is already a process for requesting extensions at the local level. Other bills related to utility regulation and rate relief, SB5085 (Bell) and HB5088 (Jones), addressed three major issues that were incredibly timely given the ongoing economic impacts of Covid-19 and substantial over-earnings of Dominion recognized by the State Corporation Commission (SCC). These bills would have provided debt forgiveness and immediate rate relief to all ratepayers, and addressed Dominion’s over-earnings by allowing the SCC to set rates that fairly balance ratepayer and shareholder interests. Unfortunately, the legislation failed to get traction. But similar measures are being pursued in the budget by the administration and the patrons of the legislation.
PEC will continue to weigh in throughout the remainder of the session on critical funding and legislative matters. Stay tuned for updates, but feel free to reach out to me directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.