Virginia Senate passes its version of state budget, setting up negotiations with House

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The Virginia Senate on Friday passed its version of the state budget, which has similar funding priorities as the House-passed version but differs on some of the specifics.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a significantly stripped down biennial budget earlier this year in light of economic uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions. The governor called the General Assembly to a special session that convened Aug. 18 to re-evaluate some of the funding priorities in light of new revenue projections.

Both chambers kept most of the cuts but proposed additional funding to assist with COVID-19-related issues.

Similar to the House version of the budget that passed earlier this week, the Senate version includes additional funding for broadband initiatives, additional funding for education, assistance for people behind on rent and utility payments and funding for policing reforms that are advancing through both chambers and expected to become law.

“We were presented with a challenge in trying to be good stewards of the Commonwealth’s finances while putting forth a budget that would address immediate needs as we work to operate during a pandemic,” Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chairperson Janet Howell, D-Reston, said in a statement.

“This budget still prioritizes the people of Virginia while providing structural balance and protecting the Commonwealth’s bond rating,” Howell said. “This budget funds criminal justice reform legislation to include police reform, a mental health awareness response system, expungements, and grant funding for body-worn cameras. We also made significant investments in community-based behavioral health. We had to be cognizant of the climate we are in. I am pleased with the work of the Senate Finance and Appropriations members and staff who all worked tirelessly to get this budget before us today.”

Education funding in Virginia is partially reliant on sales tax revenue, which has taken a took a hit during the pandemic and reduced funding for schools. The Senate version aligns itself with the House’s version and the governor’s proposals in offsetting these losses with revenue accrued through taxes on skilled gaming machines. Both versions include about $95 million in one-time funding to offset the losses in fiscal year 2021.

Both versions provide funding for Virginians who are having trouble paying their rent and their utilities but break away on the question of how to assist with utility payments. The Senate version aligns itself with Northam’s proposal to pay for these customers’ bills using excess money obtained by the state’s largest energy utility: Dominion Energy. The House version would fund the utility assistance with federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

The Senate version also includes a $500 bonus for all state employees, including law enforcement. The House version does not guarantee any bonuses, but includes a $1,500 bonus for these employees contingent on the state having enough revenue.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, voted for the budget, but urged Democratic leaders to fight for language that would help enact a bipartisan redistricting commission when the budget goes to a joint House-Senate conference committee. The language only would go into effect if voters approve a ballot initiative to establish the commission via a constitutional amendment.

If that language gets eliminated or severely watered down in negotiation, Norment said he would aggressively oppose the budget bill. Howell and Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, said they support the amendment and will fight to keep the language in the budget.

Before the floor vote, Howell said the passage of the Senate version of the budget is “one step in a long process in approving the budget.”

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