Budget deal reached as assembly looks for exit

BY MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times Dispatch, February 22, 2019.

The General Assembly finally reached agreement late Friday on revisions to Virginia’s two-year budget, setting the stage for a race to adopt the spending plan and adjourn as scheduled on Saturday.

The budget agreement comes too late to allow the House of Delegates and Senate to vote on the package Saturday, unless two-thirds of each chamber agree to waive their rules that call for giving lawmakers at least 48 hours to review such a spending compromise.

Getting consensus to waive the rules might not be hard at the end of a 46-day session that has been shrouded in scandal and election-year politics.

“Let’s see if there is anyone who wants to stay another two days,” Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Friday afternoon, hours before budget negotiators finally reached agreement after days of grueling, off-and-on negotiations.

Senate Republican Caucus spokesman Jeff Ryer said the House and Senate plan to post the proposed changes to the state’s existing two-year budget online by 10 a.m. The two chambers will convene at noon and immediately recess in order to receive briefings on the budget proposals. Waiving the 48-hour rule in order to vote on the package Saturday would require the assent of 27 senators and 67 delegates.

The big budget issues already appeared to have been settled by Friday morning — raises for public employees and teachers, funding for K-12 education, incentives for colleges and universities to not raise tuition, financial aid for economically disadvantaged students, extra money to help people find affordable housing and not lose it to eviction.

The spending initiatives reflected many of the priorities of Gov. Ralph Northam, who urged a focus on “equity issues” as he attempts to restore confidence after a scandal that began three weeks ago over a racist photo on his page of his 1984 medical school yearbook.

“Despite the political distractions, I’m glad the legislators recognized many of the equity positions that the governor included in his budget and funded them,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said Friday night.

Efforts to complete negotiations this week were hampered by demanding floor sessions as both chambers pushed to reconcile their differences on legislation.

The conference committee reconvened on Friday afternoon and negotiated final differences on the budget, including higher education and spending on capital projects.

“Higher education was the big winner,” House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said Friday night.

The budget compromise includes $57.7 million for what Jones called “tuition relief” for colleges and universities that agree to freeze their tuition rates next year. It also restores $15.5 million in financial aid that Northam had proposed. Initially, the Senate had supported and the House had eliminated it with the hope that the additional state funding would relieve the need for aid, by freezing tuition.

The plan also includes $16.6 million for colleges and universities that reach agreements with the state to expand production of undergraduate degrees in computer science and related fields. The plan is part of the “tech talent pipeline” that the state would create under pending legislation as part of its commitment to Amazon for its $2.5 billion investment in a new headquarters in Arlington County that is expected to create at least 25,000 high-paying jobs.

On the capital side, the budget compromise would provide $105 million to Virginia Commonwealth University for a new building planned for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. However, it does not include planning money for a proposed $200 million expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

“We took a breather on planning for capital,” Jones said.

The capital budget does include $168 million for the $1 billion Innovation Campus that Virginia Tech plans in Alexandria to expand graduate education in computer science and related fields as part of the state’s commitments to Amazon.

Closer to home, the budget includes $2.7 million in operating support for the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Prince George County, but eliminates money the House had included to buy the building from the University of Virginia Foundation.

The budget does not include more than $1 billion in “limited time” spending that Northam had proposed with additional state revenues because of federal tax reforms.

However, it includes money for some of his priorities, including $74 million for water quality programs, $15 million to expand access to broadband, and $3 million for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund to promote affordable housing.

The budget includes raises for state employees, teachers, college faculty, sheriff’s deputies and other state-supported local employees.

The 1 percent for state employees — a combination of across-the-board raises and merit pay — would go on top of the 2 percent raise and 2 percent in merit pay already scheduled to take effect on July 1. It would eliminate a one-time, 1 percent bonus that Northam proposed.

The tentative deal also would add 1 percent in salary for college faculty and state-supported local employees, who already are due 2 percent raises under the current two-year budget. Teachers would be eligible for an additional 2 percent raise, on top of the 3 percent already in the budget, if their school divisions fund their share.

For K-12 education, the budget would restore about $25 million in funding that Northam had proposed for “at-risk” students in Richmond and other school divisions with high concentrations of poverty.

The budget compromise does not include language that the Senate had tucked into the back of the budget to decriminalize marijuana possession and set up a study on gambling in Virginia.

The proposed gambling study is one of several high-profile legislative disputes the assembly will have to settle separately on Saturday.

“Tomorrow could be an extremely long day,” Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said Friday.

mmartz@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6964