Virginia legislature moves forward with budgets, haggles over state pay raises

IMAGE: (Bob Brown/RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS)
February 9
Thursday was pecking day at the General Assembly, as the Senate and House each passed a version of the budget and withstood last attempts by members to peck away at the fringes of the spending plans.

Neither chamber’s budget is drastically different from what Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) proposed in December, and none of the down-to-the-wire changes made much impact on the bottom line.

The legislature is fashioning the second year of a two-year, $105 billion spending plan adopted in 2016. Unexpected drops in revenue last year led to a shortfall of about $1.2 billion, so the haggling here is over how to patch that without causing too much pain.

The biggest difference among the three versions of the budget is over raises for state employees. McAuliffe proposed a one-time bonus of 1.5 percent, costing about $111.5 million. Both House and Senate leaders dislike that idea and prefer to raise salaries.

The House and Senate budgets would pay for a 3 percent raise for state employees and would single out state police, Capitol police and sheriff’s deputies for targeted increases to make their pay more competitive.

Instead of funding a raise for teachers, the House would return about $62 million in state lottery money to local school boards and let them decide whether to use it for salaries or pension contributions. The Senate budget sets aside $83.2 million for the state contribution to a 2 percent pay raise for K-12 teachers.

Otherwise, the budget plans are more harmonious than usual, possibly because this is an election year for the governor and the House and there is little incentive to shake things up.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few flare-ups of partisan posturing on Thursday.

On the House side, Democrats made futile efforts to restore favorite items (such as overtime for home health-care workers, funding for long-term contraceptives for low-income women and money to replace lead water pipes), while Republicans had more success with some that did not carry price tags.

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) stirred a debate with an amendment to stipulate that no state money would be spent on abortion services unless required by federal law. When Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) questioned whether it would prevent abortions when a fetus is too deformed to survive outside the womb, Marshall called the idea “eugenics” and said angrily that all babies “are still made in the image and likeness of God.”

The amendment passed on a straight party line vote, 60 to 34.

Republican delegates also took a shot at the Senate, declining to take up a budget amendment that would have equalized the pay between House Clerk G. Paul Nardo and Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar. Nardo makes about $194,000 after five and a half years on the job, while Schaar makes about $175,000 after 27 years.

But Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, pointed out that Nardo’s job has extra duties of “enrolling” or processing all bills passed by both chambers and that he will have to coordinate next year’s gubernatorial inauguration.

“So their jobs are not equal,” Jones said. The House set the amendment aside on a voice vote.

In the Senate, the practice of relying on unrecorded voice votes led to at least one minor dust-up. Democrats tried to restore an item in McAuliffe’s budget that would give the governor the ability to expand Medicaid in Virginia if the Affordable Care Act is still in existence after one year.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who presides over the Senate, ruled that he couldn’t tell whether the voice vote was in favor of or against the idea, so he called for a recorded vote.

This provoked complaints from Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who pressed Northam on just how he makes such a decision when one side is plainly louder than the other.

“I know you are a pediatric neurologist,” Norment said to Northam, “but I have a good friend who is an audiologist.”

The attempt to restore the governor’s language failed on a party-line vote, 21 to 19.

Each budget now goes to the opposite chamber, and they will appoint conferees to hammer out a final version that requires the approval of the House and the Senate before it can be sent to the governor. Both Republican and Democratic leaders praised one another for working conscientiously.

“While we would not have written this budget precisely this way,” House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said, “it’s our view that we are moving in the right direction.”