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Virginia lawmakers return this week for new session

Virginia's 2017 legislative session is set to start with lawmakers battling over state budget problems and jockeying for attention in an election year.

The Old Dominion has an estimated $1.26 billion shortfall for fiscal years 2016 through 2018, driven largely by lower-than-expected income and sales tax collections. A key focus of the budget work will be on state employee pay.

Political considerations will likely play an outsized role in shaping the session, which starts Wednesday, with special attention to social issues. This is Gov. Terry McAuliffe's last session and all three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general — as well as every House seat, are up for grabs this November.

Here are some areas to watch:

STATE BUDGET AND YOUR POCKETBOOK:

Lawmakers will be looking at a variety of areas to make cuts to the state's spending levels and Gov. Terry McAuliffe is proposing a 5 percent cut in state funding for public colleges and universities. Tax increases are generally a non-starter at Capitol Square, but McAuliffe wants to force certain out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes from Virginians.

That move could directly affect the pocketbook of Virginians who shop online, as it is projected to bring in $12.5 million a year.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly has been non-committal on the governor's plans, and will submit its own budget to the governor at the end of session.

STATE WORKERS' PAY

A key focus of the budget work will be on state employee pay. McAuliffe has proposed a one-time 1.5 percent bonus to employees as a kind of consolation prize after being forced to scrap planned raises last year.

C.W. Rorrer, who is the Virginia Department of Corrections' chief probation and parole officer in Arlington, said state employees seem to be the state's last priority.

"It's like if we've got anything left over after we've done all these other things we're going to do , we'll see if we can give you a little something," said Rorrer, who has worked in state government for more than four decades.

MENTAL HEALTH REFORM

Lawmakers will be considering a variety of spending and policy proposals aimed at improving the state's mental health care. McAuliffe is proposing $31.7 million in new funds to bolster mental health care and substance abuse treatment. Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth is being investigated by federal authorities and has come under withering criticism from state officials and civil rights groups after the death of two inmates there.

EYE ON ELECTIONS AND LEGACIES

Looming statewide and House elections will have a key impact on this year's legislative session.

That means there's likely to be plenty of heated rhetoric on social issues such as gay rights and abortion. It could also mean a high number of so-called brochure bills, named because the primary purpose is to be used in campaign brochure ads, and not so much passed into law.

This could also be the session where prominent politicians try and shore up their legacies. Howell, the conservative speaker who has overseen more than a decade of GOP dominance in the state House, could retire after this session. He's pushing for an overhaul of the state employee retirement system that includes options more like those offered in the private sector.

And McAuliffe, who is barred from seeking a consecutive term, is looking to shore up his legacy as a champion of second chances. The governor has already restored the voting rights of 140,000 felons and is now pushing for legislation to make Virginia more forgiving when it comes to lower-level crimes.


Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer contributed to this report.

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