Budget moves to battle between House and Senate over revenues, spending priorities

With their competing versions of the budget adopted, the House of Delegates and state Senate now prepare for direct combat over the revenues available and how best to spend them.

The Senate voted unanimously Thursday for a budget that includes an additional $31 million in revenues the state hopes to collect next year from delinquent taxpayers through a new amnesty program, as well as raises for teachers and higher education faculty that the House declined to guarantee.

“It’s a more conservative budget than the House, and it’s more directed at our priority needs than the House,” Senate Finance Co-Chairman Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, declared at the beginning of a more than two-hour debate that ultimately changed nothing in the spending plan the committee had proposed Sunday.

Meanwhile, the House voted 98-2 for a budget that doesn’t count on the extra projected amnesty revenue but provides larger pots of money for local school divisions and, depending how much they need it, colleges and universities to spend on their own priorities, including raises.

But while Hanger called the proposed reserve fund “a buffer” for the Senate in budget negotiations that will begin next week, House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said “the first order of business will be to reconcile revenues before we can get into the differences in spending.”

Despite the early jockeying for position, the two budgets adopted Thursday share common goals:

  • restoring a 3 percent raise for state employees that was promised and lost last year because of a projected $1.5 billion revenue shortfall;
  • boosting starting pay and salaries for state police;
  • raising salaries 2 percent for sheriff’s deputies and other state-supported local employees; and
  • expanding services for Virginians with mental illness and substance use addictions.

Budget leaders in both chambers also agree they will not count on additional revenues from tax collections this year, even though revenues collected through January will be announced next week and are expected to be ahead of projections.

“I feel strongly we should not re-forecast revenues,” Jones said. “If there are additional revenues at the end of the day, they would offset any use of the rainy day fund.”

Outnumbered by Republicans in both chambers, Democrats largely supported the spending plans after trying vainly to tweak them to allow Gov. Terry McAuliffe to expand the state’s Medicaid program if the Affordable Care Act survives, restore overtime pay for personal care attendants and expand options for low-income women to use long-term reversible contraceptives.

Dels. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax, and Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria, cast the two opposing votes in the House, but Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said that even if his party caucus would have written the budget a little differently, “it is our view that we are moving in the right direction.”

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, sounded a similarly supportive theme.

“We took a stand against opioids and the scourge of addiction,” Locke said in a statement. “We worked together to tackle the issues plaguing our mental health system, and we put our children first by protecting education funding.”

The biggest partisan fight in the Senate came over the decision to strip almost $4 million in new funding that McAuliffe had proposed for the Department of Elections in response to an outcry by Republicans before the election last fall about the shortcomings of the state voter registration system, VERIS.

“This is a drastic cut that will undermine the department in its mission to ensure the integrity of the election process,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who also warned that without the proposed funding “the functionality of our system is at risk.”

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, who chairs the Finance subcommittee that recommended the cuts, said some of the proposed spending wasn’t necessary, while the major investments the governor sought could be hard to accomplish in an election year for three statewide offices.

But Vogel acknowledged that “the needs are far from being met” in the state election system and said the decision to cut the new spending ultimately came down to money for employee compensation.

“In our rather aggressive effort to take back funds to pay for compensation, the Department of Elections was one of the areas that took a hit,” she said.

Ultimately, Vogel said she’s counting on the conference committee with the House, which kept the funding, to address the concerns.

The one surprise in the House came late in the day, when Republicans passed a floor amendment offered by Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, to insert language stating that no funding should pay for abortions “except otherwise required by federal law.”

Taxpayer funding of abortion through Medicaid already is prohibited except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the mother. Marshall said his amendment, which is unlikely to be approved by the Senate, would prohibit funding for abortions in cases of fetal impairment or disability.

“Not one dime should be spent to kill such children,” Marshall said on the floor.

Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax, argued “very few” poor women take advantage of that exception.

“I would ask the body not to be cruel to these women and reject this amendment,” Sickles said.

The amendment passed on a 60-34 party-line vote.