TO THE MEMBERS OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
I write to you at the conclusion of the 2013 session of Virginia's General Assembly. Thank you for your service to the people of Virginia and for the expeditious manner in which you set to work together over this short session. I have been very honored to serve with you on behalf of the people of Virginia these past four years. Thank you for your cooperation and love for the people of our Commonwealth.
While this fourth session of our administration was brief, we have put in place historic long-term reforms to transportation and education. We once again have bipartisan support for a budget that focuses on the core priorities and functions of government. In short, we have been able to set aside petty partisan arguments and do the business we were sent to Richmond to do. We cut down our rhetoric and got results.
During the first three years of my administration, working together, we successfully addressed the difficulties presented by an ongoing economic downturn and two state budget shortfalls totaling over $6 billion. We have also been able to achieve nearly $1.4 billion in surpluses and a pathway to $559.4 million in overall tax relief for Virginians over these past three years. We accelerated $1.8 billion in bonds to fund needed transportation projects, created the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank, dramatically increased funding and student slots for Higher Education, agreed to historic reforms to the Virginia Retirement System to save $9 billion, including the largest employer contribution in Virginia history and the creation of a new hybrid retirement plan.
Virginia's unemployment rate has fallen from 7.3 percent when I took office to 5.5 percent last month - a four-year low and the lowest in the Southeast. Over that time, Virginia has added 140,900 net new jobs as our economy continues to recover faster than most states.
We started this session with two key objectives. First, we set about to find a lasting solution to a transportation funding problem that has grown in scope for 27 years. And we proposed broad-based education reform to ensure that all students in Virginia are afforded a world-class education, and the lifelong opportunities that education will give them. These two issues are critical to the short and long-term prosperity of our Commonwealth of Opportunity. We were able for the most part to address these major challenges by focusing on the issues, engaging in a debate, and coming to bipartisan compromise.
The passage of a long-needed transportation funding package that is truly long-term in scope has been an important focus of this session, and what it will perhaps be best remembered for. During the nearly three decades of inaction we have witnessed congestion worsen and the quality of life of our citizens decline. Virginia's urban crescent contains three of the most congested regions in the country, and as population continues to grow, we recognize that without action, the problem will grow worse. It's a jobs issue. It's a quality of life issue. Congestion places a very real cost on drivers and businesses, with the Texas Transportation Institute estimating the annual cost of sitting in traffic at $1,400 per driver in Northern Virginia, $877 in Virginia Beach, and $581 in Richmond. We simply cannot continue to effectively grow Virginia's economy if we cannot get our citizens to work, school, and home with an efficient transportation network.
On January 8, when we launched our effort to fix transportation, we laid out three broad goals. First, we called for decreasing Virginia's reliance on the steadily shrinking transportation revenue source of the gas tax. It's worth 45 cents on the dollar of its value in 1986. As cars get significantly better mileage and more Americans choose alternative fuel vehicles, it is an inescapable fiscal reality that the gas tax is no longer a dependable, sustainable source of transportation revenue. Second, we made clear that future transportation funding in Virginia must be much more closely tied to the existing sales and use tax, which grows with economic activity, not tax increases. Finally, we stated that transportation is a core function of government. The responsibility of state government to provide for roads and rail is equal to our responsibility to provide world-class schools for our children and public safety in our communities. That means transportation must be treated like a core function of government, and it must share in our growth in general fund revenues to a greater extent than currently structured.
The historic $880 million transportation compromise bill that was passed on a bipartisan basis by over 60 percent of the members in both chambers meets all of those objectives, recognizing that we must dedicate a greater portion of existing revenues to transportation and shifting the transportation funding mechanism away from the declining gas tax to one that will keep up with future economic growth. The bill also includes regional self-help provisions that have long been asked for by legislators and local government officials in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, the two most congested regions of the Commonwealth. This is a bill that the people of Virginia wanted and it would not have been possible without the strong leadership of Speaker Bill Howell, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, Majority Leader Tommy Norment, Majority Leader Kirk Cox, Delegate Chris Jones, all of the conferees, the bipartisan group of legislators who supported its passage in the House and Senate and the legions of citizens and groups who advocated for the bill.
Every child in Virginia deserves access to a world-class education and the lifelong opportunities that education will give them. As I learned as a kid, to get a good job, you need a good education. This year, we passed bold and innovative education legislation that ensures that every child has great teachers, that sets clear and high standards for our schools, and that establishes a roadmap to provide choice, accountability and opportunity for every student in Virginia. We have worked together to pass the Opportunity Educational Institution in Virginia to turn around chronically failing schools. The Teach for America Act, which passed unanimously in both chambers will give difficult to staff schools another tool with which to bring in talented and motivated teachers. Virginia will soon increase transparency in A-F school grading, giving parents and families another tool to advocate for and achieve better schools for their communities. With passage of the Educator Fairness Act, we have reformed the teacher contract and grievance system to ensure that our children have the best possible educators.
In response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, I created the Governor's Task Force on School and Campus Safety. This group, chaired by my Secretaries of Education, Public Safety, and Health and Human Resources, and including many of your members, made several recommendations for legislative and budget action this session. I am grateful for your support of these initiatives that will help make our schools and campuses safer learning environments. Because of this bipartisan effort, we will have additional school resource officers, funds for additional security equipment in schools, better school safety audits, and teams in schools to assess threats to the safety of a school.
College affordability has become a significant barrier to higher education in recent years while at the same time, student debt has skyrocketed. This year, we put in excess of $47 million toward higher education, in addition to the over $350 million in new money over the last three years, to continue driving down increases in tuition.
We have prepared the Commonwealth for federal budget reductions that could disproportionately affect Virginia. My recommendation to include an additional $50 million as an advance deposit toward our future Revenue Stabilization (Rainy Day) Fund obligations was enhanced by the General Assembly's increase of this amount to $95 million. You approved my amendment to eliminate the unfair $45 million reduction for aid to localities in your budget, freeing up money for public safety and other critical needs of our counties and cities. This budget also affirms our commitment to teachers by providing a 2 percent pay increase.
You have passed bold initiatives to further our commitment to economic development and job creation, including supporting innovation, entrepreneurship and workforce development in Virginia. Following this legislative session, it will be easier for the private sector to create jobs, and easier for Virginians to get training in the skills necessary for those jobs. By improving the online Business One-Stop system, making the Commonwealth friendlier to entrepreneurs, and making sure that students graduate from our K-12 and college systems career-ready, we will continue to expand jobs and opportunity.
Building on our achievements over the last three years to make government more efficient and effective, we enacted measures to make government leaner, eliminate red tape, and relieve mandates on localities. You passed legislation to merge agencies in order to deliver better services to our citizens and small businesses, eliminate unnecessary boards and commissions, and cleared the way to repeal unnecessary regulations.
The 2013 session of the General Assembly will be recognized for its breakthrough transportation funding solution, and for fundamental reforms to expand educational opportunities and ensure we have outstanding teachers and schools. As we have often times done in the past, we have worked across the aisle, found solutions, and largely focused on the important issues for our people. We have made investments in core functions of government, and focused on delivering government services more efficiently and effectively. That's what the people of Virginia expect. That's the Virginia way.
I thank all of the members of our citizen legislature for the long nights and days away from family and other obligations, and for your dedicated work on the behalf of your constituents.
May God Continue to Bless the Commonwealth of Virginia.