The 2019 Regular Session of the General Assembly is now over. For the books, we adjourned one day late due to the length of discussions over the budget. A budget agreement was not reached until the morning of February 23. We amended the rules several years ago to require posting of the budget 48 hours before the vote. Even with the extra day, we did not comply with the rules. The budget work during the short session consists solely of amending the two year budget we adopted the prior year. However, there is good reason to allow an intentional “waiting period” before a final vote is taken.
First, legislators need time to review the details of the budget amendments to ensure we understand fully the implications of the changes. At the end of the day, we can only vote yes or no on the budget conference report. We cannot pull out individual line items and argue about them, but we ought to have sufficient time to digest the details of the amendments.
The second reason is to provide the public ample time to review the recommendations as well. After all, many members of the public have interest in how their money is spent; and, it is their money. Every citizen who is interested should have the opportunity to review the budget before the vote.
The rules were amended to shorten the review period from 48 hours to 24 hours. While I think a longer time is good policy, the 24 hour window was sufficient. At that point of the session, most people were anxious to leave town and get back to their families and jobs. The budget that passed included about $124 billion in revenue over the two fiscal years. Of that, roughly $23 billion per year make up the General Fund, which is generated primarily by income, sales or corporate taxes, and is not dedicated to specific programs. The rest of the budget is made up of Non-general Fund dollars, which are fees or money tied for a specific purpose, including tuition payments and gasoline taxes.
The budget ensures conformity with the federal tax code. The General Assembly adopted federal tax definitions and made certain people can get their taxes filed. The budget makes other changes to allow taxpayers to take advantage of cuts provided at the federal level, but does not include the Governor’s proposal for a fully refundable earned income tax credit.
The budget makes significant improvements in the area of K-12 education. We included about $73 million to provide the state’s share for a 5% pay increase for teachers and other public school staff effective September 1, 2019. The compromise also provides an additional $12 million to improve the counselor to student ratio in elementary, middle and high schools, although we fell far short of what the Governor included in his introduced budget. The budget also increases funding for schools deemed at risk due to higher percentages of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
Significantly, the budget makes substantial investments in health care. It increases Medicaid reimbursements for critical access hospitals, such as those in Hot Springs and Lexington. It provides funding for electronic health records for correctional facilities and accelerates the funding for STEP-VA crisis response mental health funding. The budget also includes additional money to increase staffing at mental health facilities and puts more than $5 million new money into permanent supportive housing. The budget includes additional money to fund pilot programs for inmates with mental health conditions.
In addition to teachers, state employees will see an increase of between 2.75-3% effective July 1, 2019. State supported local employees will see a 3% increase. Significantly, over $1 million is provided to increase salaries for all security positions at the Augusta Correctional Center.
The budget funds more than $57 million to incent higher education institutions to keep tuition at fiscal year 2019 levels for one more year and an additional $15 million for financial aid. About $17 million is provided to create a Tech Talent Investment Fund to increase the number of computer science and related degrees.
About $6 million will be deposited into the Water Quality Improvement Fund. And about $3 million has been provided to the Housing Trust Fund.
This was a conservative budget. Over $474 million was set aside for the revenue reserve and over $360 million was deposited in the Rainy Day Fund. All in all, it was a responsible budget, which I supported. A summary put together by the staff of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees is available here.
The legislature voted on dozens of bills in the final days of session. House and Senate conferees developed consensus on most of the legislation awaiting action. Given the large volume of bills, I will only touch briefly on some of the significant actions taken in the final days.
- Legislation (SB 1118) to require a public comment period when public colleges and universities seek to raise tuition. The conference report was supported on unanimous votes in the House and Senate.
- A compromise (SB 1341) was struck with respect to the ban on using a handheld device while driving. Ultimately, that legislation was voted down in the House of Delegates over concerns that it would be used by law enforcement to target minority populations. As some news sources have reported, advocates are pushing to have the Governor amend other legislation to achieve this goal.
- The General Assembly also approved legislation (HB 1659) requiring all clergy to report suspected child abuse and neglect unless disallowed by religious doctrine.
- Bills (SB 1715) to tax essential personal hygiene products, including incontinence products, at a lower rate also passed.
- Finally, for state employees, legislation (SB 1581) was adopted to codify parental leave benefits that are currently set out by the Governor in an executive order. The time following the birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child is vital to the development of strong, nurturing bonds. Such a benefit should not be at the whim of who resides in the Executive Mansion.
The budget and all the bills that passed now go to the Governor. The Governor had to act on any bills he received with more than seven days before the end of the session prior to adjournment. For the budget and any other bills passed after that deadline, the Governor has 30 days to act. While the Pocahontas Building and meeting rooms have been a hive of activity for the past six weeks, the activity has now shifted to the Patrick Henry Building where the Governor and his staff are housed. He will have the option of signing, amending or vetoing bills. The Governor of Virginia has a line item veto which means he can go into the budget and carve out amendments. The Governor and his staff will be very busy over the next month. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 3 to vote on any amendments or vetoes the Governor offers.
It has been my pleasure to serve you in the 2019 Session of the General Assembly. If I may be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at my law office at (540) 839-2473 or in Charlottesville at (434) 296-5491 or by email at [email protected].