Lawmakers Approve Virginia Budget in Special Session
The General Assembly returned to the Capitol on Thursday to hammer out its two-year budget. Reporters Whittney Evans and Roberto Roldan talked through the budget - and what almost prevented it from passing.
Whittney: From the VPM Newsroom in Richmond, I’m Whittney Evans.
The General Assembly returned to the Capitol on Thursday to hammer out its two-year budget. Republican fears about the effects of the COVID-19 virus on Virginia’s economy threatened to temporarily derail the vote. Ultimately, both chambers approved a final budget that was a compromise between the House, Senate and Governor Ralph Northam’s proposals. Here with me to help break down what is in the budget is VPM reporter Roberto Roldan.
Roberto, thanks for joining me.
Roberto: Happy to be here.
Whittney: I think the first thing many people want to know is will taxes be going up?
Roberto: So the state income tax is NOT going up. There are increases in cigarette and gas taxes though. The budget approved yesterday includes a 10-cent increase in gas taxes across the state. Residents in Central Virginia in particular will see an increase in gas prices because a seperate bill creating a regional transportation authority will also add another 7 cents. That means people in Richmond and Central Virginia will see a gas tax increase of 17 cents.
Whittney: This budget contains a lot of money for education, including some teacher raises. Can you break that down for us?
Roberto: Yeah, so there was some disagreement over the size of the raise teachers and school employees should get. The Governor’s budget included a 3 percent raise over the next two years, the House had 4 percent and the Senate wanted a little more. Ultimately they decided on a four percent pay increase for teachers over the next two years.
The budget also adds extra money for those schools with a higher number of low-income students. And it increases funding for teachers of english language learners.
Whittney: And what about higher education?
Roberto: They’re paying for a freeze on in-state and undergraduate tuition for the upcoming school year, which is what they did last year.The budget also caps tuition increases in 2022 at 2 percent.
Whittney: One of the things the new Democratic majority set out to do this year was increase funding for affordable housing? Did that make it into the final budget?
Roberto: Yes, the two-year budget effectively quadruples the amount of money the state is putting into the affordable housing trust fund. The last two years, the state contribution has been about $14 million. Under this new budget, the state will put a total of $60 million in the trust fund over the next two years.
I spoke to Democratic Delegate Alfonso Lopez about this. He’s the new majority whip in the House...and he’s been a long time advocate for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
Lopez: “This is not just an urban issue, not just a suburban issue. If you’re living in Galax or Grundy or Danville or Pennington Gap, and the closest thing you have to affordable housing is a trailer with mold and you have kids living there, that’s not who we should be as a commonwealth.”
There’s also money in the budget to give permanent supportive housing to about sixteen hundred people with serious mental illness.
Whittney: Are there any other big line items in the budget we should know about?
Roberto: So there’s some additional funding to hire more employees in Public Defender’s Offices across the state. And in order to shore up the state’s financial health, the budget adds money to the state reserve funds, bringing it to more than $2 billion.
Whittney: That reserve account could be an important buffer as Virginia’s economy faces some uncertainty with the COVID-19 scare. Right?
Roberto: That’s right, and as you mentioned before Senate Republicans tried to stop the budget vote over fears that it doesn’t prepare Virginia for potential economic fallout from the outbreak. But Delegate Marcus Simon, a Democrat, pointed out that if something should happen, the governor could always work with lawmakers to amend the budget.
Simon: “There’s plenty of executive authority the Governor has to address emergencies, to address shortfalls in revenue. It’s all built in, right? We don’t have to micromanage that process.”
It’s important to note that right after the House and Senate adjourned for the year, Governor Ralph Northam declared a State of Emergency.
Whittney: That’s VPM reporter Roberto Roldan speaking about the budget deal the General Assembly reached on Thursday.
I’m Whittney Evans and you’re listening to VPM News.