This VIRGINIAforever update comes to you in the midst of an unparalleled modern crisis. COVID-19 has quickly and dramatically rewritten the rules for the way we interact, do our jobs, and live our day-to-day lives. Based on what we are hearing from Governor Northam, these changes will likely last for some time.
As many of you are aware, this crisis is likely to have a profound impact on Virginia’s budget. Revenues will almost certainly come in under previous projections, and available funds may need to be diverted to reflect the state’s response to the pandemic. The overall situation is likely to remain highly fluid for the next few weeks, and the actual impact on VIRGINIAforever’s priorities is difficult to predict; with that in mind, we have decided that the Legislative Update article in this quarter’s newsletter should reflect the budget as passed. At this point, any speculation on outcome would be premature. As the situation develops, we will keep you posted; for now, we are continuing to closely monitor.
We are living through history, and living through history can be unpleasant. At some point, though, this crisis will be just that: history. Until that time comes, please stay safe, care for your loved ones, and remember to take advantage of Virginia’s natural beauty for some outdoor social distancing.
The executive board of VIRGINIAforever elected Matt Wells to serve as its chair, effective January 1, 2020. The following is a Q&A to get to know Matt.
Q: How did you become involved in VIRGINIAforever?
A: Dennis Treacy, former chair of VIRGINIAforever, reached out to me about joining. He’s very persuasive, but in this case it was a pretty easy sell. Natural resources are core to who WestRock is as a company, and preserving and protecting them is something we take very seriously. It’s also something that I care about personally.
I also loved the concept of an organization that includes both businesses and environmental organizations. Too often folks assume that we don’t have common interests, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a firm believer that we make better policy when we work together.
Q: What are your key priorities for VIRGINIAforever?
A: This organization has been blessed with fantastic leadership during its lifetime, so a lot of my focus will be on continuing to build on a solid foundation. Last year we developed and published our Five-Year Funding Plan; we will continue to vigorously pursue the goals we’ve laid out there.
That being said, the political dynamic in Virginia has shifted dramatically in the past few months, so we need to take this opportunity to make sure we are positioned properly to effectively achieve our mission. The first part of that will come as we begin a review of our strategic plan, which is our internal document that outlines what we hope to achieve from an organizational standpoint over the next few years. Overall, my goal is to make sure that VIRGINIAforever is recognized as THE preeminent voice when it comes to natural resource funding advocacy, and that we continue to be a group that policymakers reach out to proactively for feedback and input on funding decisions.
Q: Why is it important for VIRGINIAforever and other likeminded groups to continue to advocate for funding for natural resources?
A: We’ve seen from a study commissioned by VIRGINIAforever that the Commonwealth lags behind its peers when it comes to natural resources funding. That’s a problem, and it’s not one that’s going to fix itself. Budget-making is about prioritizing, and lawmakers and Governors can only prioritize properly if they understand what the needs are and what the impact of the dollars spent will be. Everybody wants clean water, vibrant forests, open spaces, and great parks, and natural beauty is a part of what makes the Commonwealth a great place. However, it takes advocacy to make sure that those general policy objectives turns into real dollars in the budget. Even when we have a Governor aligned with our priorities, we need a wide array of voices backing them up.
Q: When you’re not at work at WestRock or leading VIRGINIAforever, what do you like to do?
A: I’m on the road quite a bit for my job, so I get a fair amount of reading done in airports. When I’m home, I have a 3½ year old; he does a pretty good job of keeping me on my toes, and when I can get out I like to fish and golf.
Legislators scale back Gov. Northam’s proposals, but still some bright spots
When Gov. Ralph addressed the General Assembly’s budget committees in December, he proposed record investments in natural resources. His proposed budget included $733 million in new funding, including $400 million for water quality programs, $40 million for land conservation, $133 million for state parks infrastructure, and $25 million for Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) increased staff for permitting, enforcement, and communications. A significant amount of this new funding was in the form of debt.
Throughout the legislative session members of the General Assembly’s budget-writing committees expressed concern that the proposed level of new debt might be too much.
They also made clear their budget priorities included boosting the state’s Rainy Day Fund and other reserves, state employee and K-12 teacher salary increases, and higher education tuition controls. In the end, the General Assembly’s budget included several hundred million dollars to reserves, bringing it to a record $2.1 billion; nearly $600 million for state and local public employee salary hikes; and $135 million for tuition-freeze funds and undergraduate financial aid increases.
For several years, General Assembly budget writers have moved to reign in reliance on bonds based on briefings from the Treasurer. Virginia is one of 13 states with Triple A rating and the state has been careful maintain this standing. This issue did seem to influence the bonding request from the natural resource agencies.
Gov. Northam’s overall proposed new debt neared $1 billion – for everything from mental health hospitals to university facilities to prisons to state parks. To some, this made sense, given a mostly healthy economy and low interest rates. To the legislature, it was too much, given some economic uncertainties and a desire to preserve more debt capacity.
When the General Assembly adopted its budget on March 12, they’d trimmed some $500 million from the governor’s proposed capital projects. The General Assembly also significantly reduced the amount of cash the Governor proposed allocating to natural resources programs.
Here’s what VIRGINIAforever’s 5-Year Plan recommended, what the Governor proposed, and what the General Assembly ultimately adopted for natural resources spending.
Gov. Northam’s proposed budget included record investments in natural resources. This in itself was an accomplishment, driven in no small part by VIRGINIAforever’s and many other environmental and business organizations’ advocacy. But the large reductions adopted by the General Assembly demonstrate that we still have a long way to go in convincing legislators of the urgency and long-term benefits of the increased investment in natural resources that is the centerpiece of VIRGINIAforever’s mission.
A bright spot is that the $50 million appropriated to the stormwater fund, which is a dollar-for-dollar cost-share program with localities, is a record amount. The most previously appropriated was $35 million in 2013. Over the past half-dozen years, the General Assembly has appropriated $100 million to stormwater projects, which was matched by local governments.
Gov. Northam is currently reviewing the General Assembly’s amendments to his budget. The governor can propose additional amendments to the legislature’s adopted budget. The General Assembly returns to Richmond on April 22 for the one-day Reconvened Session, when legislators will consider – for a final time – amendments to the budget and other legislation as well as any vetoes the governor might propose.
In Q1 2020, VIRGINIAforever welcomed three members to our general board of directors: David Johnson of DuPont; Jason Eberstein of Enviva; and Mike Baum of Keep Virginia Beautiful. Welcome and thank you for your support, David, Jason and Mike!
VIRGINIAforever is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ourlandourwater. “Like” our page to stay in touch about VIRGINIAforever announcements as well as natural resources funding news from across the Commonwealth. You are encouraged to “share” and “comment” on our content.
Below please find a selection of recent natural resources-related news from the administration: