Election system priority for Senate Republicans in fall, but not in budget

Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 10:45 pm

Problems with Virginia’s voter registration system prompted howls of outrage from Republican legislators last fall, but almost $4 million proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to address their concerns disappeared from the budget adopted by the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee last weekend.

The $3.9 million proposed by McAuliffe to upgrade the VERIS registration system and replace dwindling federal funding of Virginia’s election system was cut from the budget by a Finance subcommittee led by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

Vogel said the decision was driven by the overriding budget priority to restore raises for state employees, and promised to revisit the issue of elections funding in the impending budget conference committee with the House of Delegates, which left the money alone.

“It’s a big concern for everyone,” she said Wednesday.

As the Senate and House prepare to adopt their versions of the budget today, Vogel acknowledged the issue is especially important for her. As chairwoman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, she called a joint committee meeting with the House in October to voice concerns shared by general registrars about the reliability of the VERIS system.

The online voter registration system crashed during a surge of activity ahead of the pre-election deadline, prompting a federal judge to order Virginia to briefly reopen the registration period.

Chesterfield County Registrar Lawrence C. Haake said he was bemused by the Senate’s action, which stripped $1 million to enhance the VERIS system, $2 million to pay for election programs now financed through a 15-year-old federal election law, and more than $800,000 in one-time funding initiatives proposed by the governor.

“I’m not sure the General Assembly understands the importance of what they’re doing,” said Haake, who will retire April 1 after more than 20 years as Chesterfield registrar. “The General Assembly is not supporting elections in the commonwealth by taking that money.”

House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said, “There’s nothing more essential than the conduct of our elections. It’s our responsibility. It’s a fundamental function of government.”

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor had heard the concerns voiced by Republicans last fall and addressed them in his budget. “He hopes they will see the wisdom of giving the Department of Elections the resources it needs to run smooth elections,” he said.

Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said the omission reflects the way Senate Finance tasks its subcommittees with meeting a funding target, in this case with the overriding priority of employee compensation. “Considering the assignment that Jill’s (subcommittee) had, they had to prioritize,” he said. “You can see how they prioritized.”

However, the Senate budget includes a $14.5 million unappropriated balance, as well as a $40 million reserve fund it created with additional revenue expected from a tax amnesty program proposed by McAuliffe and supported by legislators. The House budget has a $1.9 million unappropriated balance and does not include additional revenue from the amnesty.

“It’s better not to count our eggs before the chickens lay them,” Appropriations Director Robert P. Vaughn said in a House budget briefing Tuesday.

Funding to bolster Virginia’s election system is just one of the conflicts between the House and Senate versions of the two-year state budget, which both would restore a 3 percent raise for state employees and bolster pay for state troopers, while rejecting the one-time, 1.5 percent bonus proposed by the governor in December.

The Senate budget also doesn’t include funding for the Division of Capitol Police to make its salaries more competitive and prepare for the General Assembly’s move this summer to temporary quarters while the General Assembly Building is demolished and replaced. The House budget includes $2.4 million for the Capitol Police to raise salaries, fill vacancies and add positions.

Vogel’s subcommittee also recommended cutting more than $2.2 million from the budget for the transition and inauguration of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general during the fiscal year that will begin July 1. The House budget keeps the money intact.

But the biggest point of conflict is how the two budgets treat teacher raises. The Senate plan would provide $83 million for the state’s share of a 2 percent raise for teachers to make up for the state’s reneging on its commitment to a raise in December because of a revenue shortfall projected at $1.26 billion for the two-year budget.

Most school divisions gave the raises to teachers anyway, but the House budget does not include money explicitly to pay the state’s share of a pay hike. Instead, the House added $61 million, primarily from funds McAuliffe proposed to use for a bonus, to free Virginia Lottery proceeds for school divisions to use as they like, without having to match the grants with local money.

The proposal would boost the lottery money available in the next fiscal year to more than $218 million for school divisions to use for teacher pay or to pay the full contribution required by the Virginia Retirement System for teacher pensions, House budget officials say. In contrast, the Senate plan would combine almost $28 million in lottery money for K-12 in the current budget with the $55 million proposed by the governor for a bonus to provide the state’s share of a teacher raise.

Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said teachers generally favor the Senate plan because it would direct the money to be used for raises, although they are dismayed that the proposal would allow school divisions to use the money to “backfill” the state’s share of raises given last year, rather than give additional raises to help close a $7,200 gap in state teacher pay with the national average.

“In itself, it’s not doing anything to address the shortage in teacher pay,” Livingston said.

House budget leaders say their proposal was well-received by school superintendents in a conference call last week, but the Virginia Association of School Superintendents hasn’t taken a position on which budget to support, lobbyist Tom Smith said. “We are in favor of increasing teacher salaries. We are looking at how that might be done with both budgets.”

Ryer, the Senate Republicans’ spokesman, said the differences between the House and Senate will be relatively easy to bridge in conference committee.

“Are there differences? Yes,” he said. “Are there huge distances? No.”