The Special Session of the General Assembly regarding the state budget came to a dramatic conclusion on April 18. The Senate Democrats led the fight to adequately fund our public schools, restore draconian cuts to health and human services and ease the toll burden on working families in our region. It was a roller coaster ride that began last December when Governor McDonnell introduced a spending plan calling for a raid on the General Fund (GF) –the revenue stream that covers public safety, public education, health & human services, aid to localities, etc. He proposed using those funds to pay for badly needed transportation infrastructure. As you know by now, both the House of Delegates and Senate amended that plan during the regular session of the legislature. However, the measures failed to pass the Senate during the regular legislative session. By law, the Lt. Governor is not able to break ties on revenue bills. Thus began the roller coaster ride of budget negotiations with the start of the Special Session on March 10.
The Senate budget priorities included developing and preparing our future workforce in this global economy, by making strategic and appropriate investments toward educating Virginia’s children. Funding was added for the cost of competing in Northern Virginia, which is a necessary incentive to attract and retain the best teachers in our region. $47M was included for reducing class size in elementary schools. We fought for continued funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Additionally, we sought to keep our colleges and universities affordable and accessible. The proposed budget includes nearly $18.5M over the biennium for undergraduate and graduate financial aid. The Senate also proposed $11.7M to increase TAG (Tuition Assistance Grants) to $2,750/per applicant.
There is a growing list of Virginians in need of services that is reaching about 600 individual names. The proposed budget that is before the Governor, adds 225 ID (the former MR waiver) and 80 DD (Developmental Disabilities) Medicaid waiver slots above the number required by the agreement with the Department of Justice. Eligibility for Medicaid was restored for 1,500 elderly and disabled individuals needing long term care services. Funding was approved by the legislature that restored personal care under Medicaid waivers to 56 hours per week. The compromised bill calls for $500,000 for funding poison control centers. There is no funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs. In my opinion this is a tragic misfortune for a program that has been successful.
On another positive note, the budget bill calls for using $7M to capitalize a Housing Trust Fund. Of that money, 80% will fund a revolving loan fund and 20% will be applied toward homeless assistance programs. This is a one-time boost for struggling homeowners. Too many Virginians have faced financial ruin and the loss of their homes during the mortgage/lending crisis.
Raises for state employees remain contingent upon surplus funds – that is if the economy continues to improve and state funds are available above the current forecasts. The Department of Business Assistance will see $1.5M each year of the biennium for the Small Business Investment Grant Program to encourage investment in small enterprises. The biggest disappointment of the session was the Governor’s seemingly lack of interest for addressing the problems facing Virginia’s transportation network. His refusal to properly fund the Dulles Metro Line negatively impacts Northern Virginia, the economic engine of the Commonwealth.
The budget bill is now on the Governor’s desk. If he follows what he did during the regular session, we can anticipate his pen will be busy amending the compromise bill. (You may recall Governor McDonnell amended over 100 bills and put a veto on 7 measures adopted by the General Assembly this winter). We should know what actions he will take by this Friday, May 4. The Legislature will meet at the Capitol on May 14 to approve or reject the Governor’s proposed amendments. Thank you for all of your support and encouragement throughout our largely successful battle for a budget that works for all Virginians.
Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org