Va. House, Senate budgets would boost pay for public employees

IMAGE: BOB BROWN / RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH

Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2017 5:00 am

More pay for public employees is the bottom line in the budget proposals that will emerge in the General Assembly today.

In addition to restoring a canceled 3 percent pay increase for state employees and giving an additional boost to state police salaries, the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee will propose a 2 percent raise for sheriff’s deputies and other state-supported local employees.

The House proposal also will include $2.4 million for the Capitol Police to raise officer pay, fill vacant positions and hire 15 additional officers to address turnover and staff shortages in the force that polices the Virginia Capitol and seat of government around it.

The plan would raise the starting salary for Capitol Police by $6,200 — to $42,750 a year — while providing existing staff an increase of $4,300 on top of the 3 percent raise for all state employees.

“Capitol Police provide more than just our security when we’re here,” Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said in an embargoed budget briefing for the media on Friday.

Senate Finance did not share its budget proposals with the media in advance, but Co-Chairman Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, said the plan’s priorities are restoring the pay increase for state employees, boosting state police compensation, and improving the state’s dysfunctional behavioral health system

“I expect our budget to end up in a more conservative posture than the House,” Hanger said Saturday.

The House budget includes $2.8 million for targeted raises to employees in high-turnover positions, such as nurses and direct-care aides at state behavioral health facilities, and housing staff and food-service workers at higher education institutions. They would get a 2 percent boost on top of the pay hike for all state employees.

The plan would provide money for raises to employees of public colleges and universities who didn’t get them last year because of a surprise shortfall in state revenues. Some institutions, notably the University of Virginia and College of William & Mary, gave raises to faculty anyway.

It also would restore $21 million of the $76 million that Gov. Terry McAuliffe cut in state support for higher education institutions in the budget he proposed last month, reducing the spending cut to no more than 1.4 percent of any institution’s total education and general funds.

The House budget proposal does not include money explicitly for teacher pay increases, but Hanger said of the Senate plan, “We’re going to attempt to work something out for the teachers.”

Both committees plan to free Lottery proceeds for local school divisions to use as they wish, and to provide extra relief for small school divisions with sharp declines in enrollment and state funding.

House budget leaders briefed school superintendents on the K-12 spending plan in a conference call Wednesday, Jones said. “They were very pleased with the news we gave them.”

Richmond and other cities with high poverty rates would have an opportunity for grants from a $10 million fund that would be established under the House budget for community wealth building programs that provide services to move people out of poverty and off public assistance by helping them get jobs.

“It’s a comprehensive approach to move people from dependence to self-reliance,” said Del. Christopher K. Peace, R-Hanover, a member of Appropriations who pushed for funding of the program. “It’s one of those areas there is common ground on both sides of the aisle.”

Both committee budget proposals include big increases in funding for mental health and substance disorder treatment, building on the $31.7 million McAuliffe proposed in December for the state’s behavioral health system.

The committees did not include $4.5 million the governor had proposed for a study of how to restructure the mental health system.

The House instead boosted eligibility for mental health services under Medicaid to people earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, or $11,880 for a single person, expanding eligibility to the Guaranteed Access Program by about 3,000 people.

The budget proposals also include money to provide permanent supportive housing for people with behavioral health disorders, with $5 million in the Senate proposal and $2 million in House plan.

“With our focus on mental health, we felt that was an omission by the governor that we intend to address,” Hanger said.

The House budget would provide $1.5 million to expand the state’s program for victims of domestic violence and restore about $723,000 cut from the Library of Virginia, which lost up to 15 positions because of spending cuts in the current year’s budget to close an immediate revenue shortfall.

The restored money will allow the library to reopen on Mondays and Saturdays, said Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, who introduced budget amendments to restore the funding.

In economic development, the House plan would restore $7.5 million to the GO Virginia initiative, or about half of the $15 million that McAuliffe cut in his proposed budget. It also would restore half of the $4 million the governor cut from incentives for the Inova Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Institute in Fairfax County.

The House did not restore any of the $10 million that McAuliffe cut from the Virginia Research Investment Fund. Jones sponsored the higher-education research initiative, but he said, “We didn’t feel like they were ready.”

Jones did not say how much the House budget may provide to support restructuring of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership through legislation he is sponsoring. The restructuring plan is likely to require the creation of a division to oversee financial incentives given to new or expanding businesses, and an internal auditor.

“If we get a bill, there will be funding at the end of the day,” Jones said.

The House committee aimed its spending plan for higher education at colleges and universities that didn’t give faculty and other employees a 3 percent raise last year. The revenue shortfall had triggered a budget provision that canceled the $346.3 million compensation package that was scheduled to take effect Dec. 1 for a wide range of public employees.

The House includes $6 million in raises for classified workers at colleges and universities, $8.7 million for faculty, and $2.9 million for administrative faculty, but only for institutions that didn’t give raises on their own last year, such as Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University, and Christopher Newport University.

Institutions that did give raises to faculty and university staff — especially the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary — could increase salaries again, but only at their own expense.

“If they were able to give pay raises without state help, they will be able to continue to do it without state help,” Appropriations Director Robert P. Vaughn said.

The House found money to pay for its priorities, especially raises, primarily from the $130.6 million that McAuliffe had proposed for one-time, 1.5 percent bonuses and new spending initiatives outside of mental health. “We took the new initiatives and pretty much wiped them out,” Jones said.

Among the cuts in the House plan was $3.9 million to pay for career development programs, sheriffs, commonwealth’s attorneys, and other constitutional officers sought for their staffs. Hanger said the Senate proposal would include money for career development.

The House budget proposal relies on additional revenue from tax policy changes McAuliffe proposed, but would eliminate new and increased fees in the governor’s plan.

It also, once again, would reject McAuliffe’s attempt to retain the power to expand Medicaid if the Affordable Care Act survives attempts by President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal the law.

“I think I said, ‘Nice try,’ ” Jones quipped.