As legislators return to the General Assembly in January, they will be considering proposed amendments to the 2020-2022 biennial budget by Gov. Ralph Northam.
The budget presented by Northam is based on a revenue forecast which anticipates $1.2 billion more in revenue than originally thought. To account for uncertainty in the future, Northam called for $650 million to be placed in revenue reserves.
“Revenues are exceeding official forecasts, even during a pandemic,” Northam said. “This is in sharp contrast to other states. Other states have laid off workers, cut services, and even borrowed money to pay the bills—actions that will weaken their financial pictures for years to come. But in Virginia, our finances are solid, and the actions we have taken have kept our triple-A bond rating secure.”
A portion of the budget amendments are dedicated to combating the coronavirus and associated issues.
The budget includes $240 million for public health pandemic response to include $90 million to support Virginia’s vaccination deployment.
“Vaccines are now being deployed in Virginia,” Northam said. “While it will take months to vaccinate everyone, we can now start to look to the future with hope. We’re all tired, but this is not the time to let down your guard or be reckless.”
The budget invests over $500 million to prevent reductions to school division funding due to COVID-19. In addition, it invests $27 million in school counselors and includes $80 million for a two percent bonus for teachers and support positions. The budget also restores over $16 million to expand access to early childhood education.
“We also expect enrollment numbers to rebound once the pandemic has subsided and in-person learning becomes the norm again. While these enrollment declines normally would result in less state funding, that would devastate our public education system,” Northam said. “That is why this budget helps school divisions, students, and teachers. This budget accounts for the reduction in enrollment but also protects school divisions with funding to ensure they don’t suffer from any loss of funding under the enrollment formulas that drive the allocation of state dollars.”
To avoid a housing crisis, Northam said the next budget should include an additional $25 million for the Virginia’s Housing Trust Fund in fiscal year (FY) 2022. This comes with another $15.7 million in FY21 for the Rent and Mortgage Relief Program and $1.5 million in FY2022 to fund additional housing attorneys at the Virginia State Bar.
For the Commonwealth’s non-pandemic related priorities, Northam included $36 million in FY2022 for the G3 (Get a Skill, Get a Job, Give Back) Program to get free or low-cost job skills training in high-need fields through Virginia’s community college system.
“Even more importantly, it provides the financial aid necessary to help people get that training,” he said. “G3 will provide free community college for certain low- and middle-income Virginians who enroll at our two-year colleges in pathways that lead to a high-demand job. These pathways include the skilled trades, healthcare, technology, early childhood, and public safety. For those folks who have seen their jobs disappear during this pandemic, G3 could be a lifeline. That’s why I have prioritized this important investment.”
Northam also is calling for pay increases for public workers. The budget includes $98 million for a one-time bonus for state employees ($1,500), adjunct faculty ($750), and state-supported local employees (1.5 percent). Another $9.5 million would go to the Compensation Board to increase support for Virginia’s constitutional officers. The budget also includes $100 million for the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) to reduce unfunded liabilities in the retirement plan for public school teachers, the state employee health insurance credit program, and benefits for first responders.
“This is sound fiscal policy that will keep VRS on a more solid footing—and importantly, it means our public servants can feel more secure about their future benefits,” Northam said.
Some proposals also addressed marijuana and the criminal justice system.
First, Northam wants a line of credit to Virginia ABC to help pay for the establishment of the Commonwealth’s governance and oversight of the legal, adult-use cannabis industry.
“Reforming our marijuana laws is one way to ensure that Virginia is a more just state that works better for everyone,” Northam said. “It also will eventually bring in tax revenue that can be used to further make sure we are providing equitable access to opportunity. For example, just half of the potential annual revenue could pay for two years of quality Pre-K to every one of Virginia’s most vulnerable three- and four-year–olds — children who deserve the best start in life.”
The budget includes $5 million in FY2021 and $20 million in FY2022 to pay for the cost of expungement reforms, including automatic expungement of misdemeanor marijuana
“As we consider ways to make our criminal justice system more fair and equitable, we must talk about improving our system of expunging past crimes from people’s records,” Northam said. “I have put $20 million into this budget, so it will be ready when we conclude the important discussion of how best to conduct expungements. Like marijuana legalization, this is a priority that needs action in this session.”