The Senate Finance Retreat was held in Staunton last week. Each year the committee meets to hear an overview of the Commonwealth’s fiscal state, revenue projections and the outlook for the budget.
As far as I’m concerned, the best part of this committee retreat is that all members of the Senate are invited to attend. This gives each member of the Senate the opportunity to learn this information before the Session begins and helps us all to know what to expect when the Governor presents his budget in mid-December and the legislative review begins.
With few exceptions, most Senators do attend the two-day retreat. I think this year only three or four were unable to come.
This year’s meeting featured a "Capital Outlay Tour" by bus. We visited the campus of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind that is slated to receive students from Hampton as the two programs merge into one. The enrollment does not justify having two programs but the Staunton campus will have to be renovated extensively as many of the historic buildings need major repairs.
Another stop was at Western State Hospital. Now that deinstitutionalization is the goal, the patient census is much lower than in years past. Furthermore, more patients are forensic patients sent by the courts so there is need for greater security. The plan is to consolidate operations into a new building and make some of the excess property available for economic development. Funds realized from this plan will go into a special fund for the benefit of mental health programs.
From the bus windows we saw some of the results of investment in the City of Staunton. Their Main Street Program has restored historic buildings that are filled with charming shops – I wished I could have had time to explore them. Blackfriars Theatre houses the American Shakespeare Center where later in the day the cast performed vignettes from some plays. We stayed at the newly restored Stonewall Jackson Hotel that was built in the 1920s.
We had numerous detailed briefings from Senate Finance staff. We learned that while some revenues are still growing at a rate higher than projections, our major sources of tax revenue (personal income and sales tax) are not. Recordation taxes are heading down rapidly with the slowdown in the housing market: first quarter receipts are down 25%.
The basic advice from the staff is to be cautious. Although there is some unanticipated revenue that can be allocated for the next fiscal year, there are also many high priority items that will need additional funding. It will be wise to use funds for one-time items rather than increasing services that will extend into future years.