A Virginia Senate committee advanced a substitute version of the House budget bill Wednesday in a procedural step that is likely to lead to a conference committee between the two chambers.
While House and Senate leadership have been meeting about budget differences for the past five days and may be close to an agreement, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, neither bill has support from Gov. Ralph Northam, who has threatened not to sign the pending agreement unless changes are made.
In a letter sent Wednesday to leadership in both chambers, Northam asked lawmakers to grant him more flexibility in spending COVID-19-related funds rather than allocating them to specific projects in the budget.
The governor also asked the chambers to refrain from including additional funding for projects that are contingent on additional revenue and to address those projects in the next legislative session, when lawmakers will have a better idea about the revenue situation.
“I need to be clear that I want to sign the budget you send me,” Northam wrote. “But that is not yet possible.”
The substitute spending bill, which advanced through the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, includes similar priorities to the House version, but approaches some of them differently. Both versions include more broadband funding, more education funding, assistance for people behind on their rent and utility payments and money to implement criminal justice reform bills that likely are to become law.
In both versions, $95 million of revenue accrued from a tax on skilled gaming machines would be allocated to education in a one-time fund. This funding is not intended to set precedent for future education funding, but helps backfill money lost because of lower sales tax revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions.
Although both chambers allocate funding to help Virginians who are behind on rent and utility payments, the versions differ in where that money for utility assistance would come from. The Senate version follows the governor’s proposal, which calls for the funds to come from excess money obtained by the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy. The House seeks to use federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
Both bills seek to give bonuses to law enforcement, teachers and other state employees. The Senate version would guarantee a $500 bonus for state employees. The House version includes a $1,500 bonus for state employees, but it would go into effect only if state revenues are high enough to cover the cost.
The Senate version also includes language that would help enact a bipartisan redistricting commission if Virginia voters approve a ballot initiative to create one in the November election. House Democrats are opposed to the amendment, but House Republicans, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats support the amendment.
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