Both houses of the General Assembly reported a proposed budget a few days after the halfway point of our 46-day legislative session. While both budgets use the Governor’s proposal as a jumping off point, often the outcomes are drastically different – especially in years of split government. A budget is a list of priorities, and it can tell a great deal about the values and priorities of its authors. Reviewing the proposed budgets from the House of Delegates, and State Senate, it is evident that these bodies have differing sets of priorities based around a central fundamental of governing: should we invest in core public services or cut revenues?
From a 10,000-foot view, the difference between our two proposed budgets comes down to that – the House has chosen to align with the Governor’s proposal of cutting more than $1 billion in taxes, mainly for large corporations and Virginia’s highest earners. The Senate proposal retains existing, already comparatively low, tax rates on those individuals and entities, and chooses instead to inject most of that $1 billion into public education.
Still, there are some areas of agreement.
The two bodies are mostly in accord on pay for state employees. Both amended budgets include an additional two percent raise for state employees. This raise will be on top of a five percent raise that was approved last year, in an attempt to better keep up with inflation. However, there is disagreement on how to allocate bonuses to qualified public servants. The Senate’s proposal is to send a $1,000 dollar bonus to all state employees on December 1st 2023, while the House’s proposal is to give targeted bonuses to the state employees who work in departments and agencies with the highest employment vacancies. I believe it is important to give these bonuses to the broadest possible swath of public servants, and I will be advocating for this measure in the final budget.
The largest difference between the two proposed budgets is the total allocation for public education. In recent weeks it was uncovered that the Youngkin administration had miscalculated the amount of funds that it would be able to allocate to local school divisions because their calculations did not take into account the elimination of the state portion of the grocery tax, an action we took last year.
The miscalculations shorted Virginia school districts approximately 220 million dollars. Both houses of the General Assembly sought to replace these finds. The House of Delegates has set aside just 4.9 million dollars to make up this funding. The Senate on the other hand, proposes 58.1 million dollars to help address the shortfall. This 58.1 million dollars would be enough to help school districts complete this fiscal year. Another component of the Senate’s budget that is not in the House Budget is the removal of the cap on state funding of school support positions. This cap, put in place during the great recession, limits the amount of funding available for positions such as custodians, assistant Superintendents, school nurses, and other support positions. By removing it, our school districts will be able to attract and retain critical staff who make our schools run better and improve our students' daily lives. The proposed Senate Budget includes over one billion dollars in direct aid to school divisions, over seven hundred million more than the amount set aside by the House of Delegates. This critical investment in our children’s education is a strong reminder of our commitment to ensuring a better future for all Virginians. In addition to our K-12 schools, the Senate Budget includes an additional twenty million dollar increase in funding for Pre-K, ensuring access to affordable early education – a key indicator of long term educational success. Finally, the Senate budget diverts all proposed additional funding from Governor Youngkin’s “lab school” proposals, which have come to be seen by many as a backdoor to publicly funded charter schools. I am a firm believer that public funds should be spent on public education.
Additionally, the proposed Senate Budget includes an increase in funding for mental and behavioral health services. Our budget sets aside an additional eight million dollars on top of what was introduced by the Governor to address the mental health crisis that is plaguing Virginia. Providing greater access to mental healthcare, particularly for our youth, will help increase the quality of life for Virginians. Additionally, providing more funding for mental health professionals will ultimately take pressure off of law enforcement as police officers will not be in the position to be responding to mental health calls.
There are major differences between the two budgets both in terms of what is in the budget and on how much money should be dedicated to particular projects. In the coming weeks, members of the House and Senate money committees will work to alleviate the discrepancies and create a conference budget that can pass in the coming weeks.