Minimum Wage Remains but Student Debt Help and Tax Cuts May be Coming to Virginia

Student debt, tax incentives and utility refunds are among the many economic changes made by the Virginia General Assembly this session. However, wage laws will remain the same. 

Gov. Ralph Northam is set to sign a bill that will create a student loan office to help Virginia borrowers understand their agreements and troubleshoot any problems students may have with their loans. By December 2019, the office will also establish and maintain an education loan borrower course to help teach students how to make smart choices when taking out loans.

More than 50 percent of Virginia graduates have student loan debt averaging at about $27,000. Virginian’s pay more in student debt than they do in car loans or credit cards, and the highest delinquency rate on loans come from low-income areas.

A partner bill that would have required education loan servicers to obtain a license from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) passed the Senate unanimously but failed in the House of Delegates.

Legislation that would increase the minimum wage died early in the session, including Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, Senate Bill 58 that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Supporters of the legislation argued that the minimum wage had not kept up with inflation over the years. Since the federal minimum was raised in 2009, the current $7.25 an hour has lost about 9.6 percent of it’s purchasing power.

Other wage laws failed to make it through the session such as one that would exclude tips received by employees when determining the number of wages paid by an employer under the Virginia Minimum Wage Act.

Newsboys, caddies, ushers and door attendants are a few of the jobs that employers are not required to pay the federally mandated minimum wage. The law, which was written in the 1970s, included positions that were considered low-income, low-skill jobs that were occupied primarily by African Americans.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, said the old law had “Jim Crow written all over it.”

House Bill 39 would have established a procedure by which any locality may impose a local alternative minimum wage, but the bill died without a hearing.

Even without a higher salary, lawmakers worked to bring more jobs into areas struggling the most. Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, successfully saw a bill through the session that, if signed by the governor, will waive taxes for ten years for qualified companies that locate in Virginia’s economically distressed areas. Employees of the companies will also receive tax breaks.  

The localities included in the legislation are the counties of Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Wise, Wythe, Amelia, Appomattox, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Henry, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Prince Edward, Accomack, Caroline, Essex, Gloucester, King and Queen, King William, Lancaster, Mathews, Middlesex, Northampton, Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland.

Localities to benefit from House Bill 222

The language also includes the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton, Petersburg, Danville and Martinsville

In order to qualify the businesses must either invest $5 million in new capital investment and create no less than ten jobs paying at least twice the minimum wage, or create no less than 50 jobs that pay at least twice the minimum wage. Lawmakers described the legislation as an innovative approach to help the economy in Virginia’s most impoverished regions.

Virginians may also start saving money on their electricity bills. Northam signed into law a bill that will end the 2015 freeze on utility rates and allowed Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to be free of SCC rate review. The companies must also refund customers on their overpayments, and more money will be invested into clean energy.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch last year found that if there were not a rate freeze law, Dominion Energy would have returned as much as $133 million to customers.