General Assembly passes budget, adjourns a day early

3/11/2016 –

Maybe they’d had enough of each other and just wanted to get the heck out of Richmond.

The General Assembly completed the people’s business a day early, passing a new, two-year, $105 billion budget late Friday and adjourning on Day 59 of an often acrimonious session.

An increase in projected revenues allowed some financial breathing room that made it easier for the state Senate and the House of Delegates to find bipartisan consensus on the state’s spending priorities.

The newly adopted spending plan for July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2018, provides a 3 percent raise this year for state employees and higher education faculty. It also provides a 2 percent pay raise this year for teachers and state-supported local employees.

A key provision in the budget directs nearly $200 million in new funding for public education that school divisions will have flexibility in how they spend.

The Senate approved the budget on a 38-1 vote. The House passed the plan by a vote of 91-8. Legislators capped their work about 8:30 p.m.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Friday night that he got 90 percent of what he requested in the budget.

“I’m very happy with the session and want to thank everybody for working together in a bipartisan way to get us where we are today,” McAuliffe said.

House GOP leaders said in a statement: “For the second straight year, the Republican-led General Assembly advanced our legislative priorities, crafted a conservative and responsible state budget, and worked diligently to complete its work ahead of schedule.”

Highlights they cited included the investments in K-12 education and more than $114 million to offset college tuition costs. Republicans also highlighted economic development efforts that they say bring better oversight to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

Now it’s McAuliffe’s turn. For the next six weeks, he will pore over legislation and the spending plan, signing some provisions, while making amendments and vetoes to others.

Democrats were generally satisfied with the spending compromise, but they bemoaned the legislature’s decision not to tap federal health care dollars to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“Today, we voted to improve public schools and make college more affordable,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “We approved new funds for mental health services, accessible housing, and countless other needs.

“Still, this budget is marred by Republicans’ refusal to close the coverage gap,” he added. “We have needlessly wasted another year — and with it, the chance to save hundreds of lives.”

Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, cast the lone vote against the budget.

“I think there was too much spending and debt,” she said.

“At the end of the day we need to completely reduce the amount of spending we do right now,” she said, adding that she supports eliminating the corporate income tax, the capital gains tax and the personal income tax as a means to drive greater business investment in Virginia.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the spending plan is “fiscally constrained” and takes into account the uncertainty about how the economy is going to be in the next 12 months.

Despite agreement on the budget, the simmering partisan bitterness over judicial selection — which led to the mid-session ouster of Supreme Court Justice Jane Marum Roush and a frenzied 48-hour scramble to fill the court vacancy ahead of adjournment — left lawmakers and McAuliffe in a less than generous mood.

While delegates broke for dinner, tensions boiled over in the Senate. For an hour, senators aired grievances in floor speeches that featured Trumpian insults.

About the only other point of bipartisan agreement beside the budget was an impromptu resolution to have Norment shave his newly grown beard.

“I am told in my absence fur was flying, so I decided to fly some fur myself,” Norment told Senate colleagues when he returned to the floor, clean shaven, prior to the budget vote.

By JIM NOLAN AND GRAHAM MOOMAW Richmond Times-Dispatch