Virginia lawmakers unveil new budget plans amid pandemic
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers unveiled budget proposals Friday aimed at mitigating the effects of the coronavirus with funding for mental health services, high-speed internet access, and assistance for people behind on rent and utilities.
The House of Delegates and the state Senate advanced their own spending plans out of committees that also included new funding for criminal justice proposals being considered in an ongoing special special legislative session that started last month.
“The pandemic has hit our most vulnerable citizens the hardest, exacerbating the divide between the haves and the have nots,” said Del. Luke Torian, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “It is our responsibility to help this population.”
The House and Senate budget drafts contain numerous differences that will have to be ironed out after each chambers passes their own version of the budget. For instance, the House is far more prescriptive than the Senate in how the state should spend $1.3 billion remaining in federal coronavirus relief funding.
Final approval of a new state spending plan may not happen for several more weeks.
The Senate’s proposal includes a one-time $500 bonus in December to law enforcement officials, something Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell said is meant to show “support and appreciation” for police. It would cost $18.4 million.
Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, praised the Senate for including a bonus for police during a time of nationwide protests over police brutality and a special legislative session focused on police reforms.
“It gratifies us and encourages us,” he said.
Lawmakers also proposed new spending to finance the criminal justice and police reform bills championed by the Democratic majority at the legislature. That includes legislation to expunge certain criminal offenses and to establish an alert system to dispatch mental health providers along with police to help stabilize people in crisis situations.
The House version does not include a bonus specifically for police, but would include a $1,500 bonus next year for state employees that’s contingent on there being enough state revenues to pay for it. Lawmakers in both chambers included a wide array of contingency spending in their budget plans, acknowledging the current uncertainty about pandemic’s longer-term impact on state finances.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced last month it is predicting $2.7 billion in lost revenues over the next two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak required lawmakers to put an indefinite hold on spending increases they’d previously approved like teacher raises and free community college tuition for some students.
Virginia is relatively well off compared to other states, thanks in large part to heavy defense and other federal spending.
The budgets proposals unveiled Friday did not include language that Northam wanted that would have have required Dominion Energy to cover unpaid residential electric bills with $320 million that regulators say the company previously overcharged. Instead, lawmakers included language friendlier to the state’s largest utility, requiring it to forgive customers who are more than 30 days late as of September 30. The final figure is unknown but would likely be significantly less than the $320 million that Northam wanted.
House advocates also said the budget proposals were too favorable to landlords and did not offer enough protections to renters from being evicted during the pandemic.
“There are still several steps left in the budget process. We look forward to continuing to work with legislators to ensure that all tenants can remain safely in their homes until the present health emergency ends,” the Virginia Poverty Law Center said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.