The 2022 Special Session I of the Virginia General Assembly met on June 1 to pass a budget. Both the House of Delegates and the Senate met and adopted the conference report, which was negotiated by the chair and vice chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee and the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. The negotiations were not typical, but this is not a typical year. We had a surplus and a historic chance to make investments that would benefit Virginians over the long haul. In some respects, we met that challenge and in others we did not.
In typical years, the budget is negotiated by subcommittees of the conference committee. The subcommittees are divided up along subject matter. I was fortunate to serve on the conference committee last year and in 2020. It was intense and rewarding work. This year, the budget was negotiated by the leadership without the usual subcommittee infrastructure. As a result, a lot of people, including me, were blindsided by the final product.
The budget works in many respects. For the first time in over 20 years, the budget invested significant funding for school construction. The budget provides $400 million in direct payments to our school divisions, with each division receiving at least $1 million, and an additional $450 million in grant funding. An additional $400 million has been set aside for low interest loans. While this is a significant investment, we have a problem that has been estimated at over $25 billion in scope. So, this is just a down payment.
We made other notable investments in public education. We increased funding in direct aid to our public schools by $2.9 billion over the biennium, including money to provide the state share of funding for a principal at every elementary school and to increase support positions. On teacher compensation, we funded the state share of a five percent raise in both years of the biennium and provided a $1,000 bonus in 2022.
Significant dollars are invested in the widening of Interstate 64 between New Kent County and Newport News. This is one of the most backed up areas of our highway system. Anyone who has traveled to Virginia Beach recently knows exactly what I am talking about.
We provided 5% raises for all state and state-supported local employees in each year of the biennium. We addressed salary compression at the Virginia State Police and provided targeted increases for sheriffs, local law enforcement officers, and corrections workers. State employees will also receive a $1,000 bonus in December.
The compromise also provided significant investments in mental health. The new funding includes $34 million for permanent supportive housing, $32 million for mobile crisis teams and crisis receiving centers, $7 million for discharge planning, and $6 to support the implementation of Marcus Alert programs in five localities.
Some areas we missed the mark, in my view, are:
- We included funding in the budget to complete the implementation of STEP-Virginia, however we did so by using federal ARPA funding. This will create a structural imbalance in our budget that could come back to bite us next year. We should not use one-time funds for annual commitments. It means we have not finished the job.
- To help address the problem that caused our state psychiatric hospitals to shut down to new admissions in 2021, we sought to raise the pay of employees in our hospitals. The staff at our hospitals are providing vital care to individuals in crisis. The work is difficult, sometimes dangerous, and often under-appreciated. We discovered we were paying people in the 10th percentile when compared with similar jobs throughout the country. The Senate’s plan was to raise the pay to the 75th percentile. The House approach raised it to the 50th percentile, which is what was included in the conference report.
- Compensation issues within our mental health system is not limited to our state hospitals. I sponsored a budget amendment to provide $167.5 million each year to the Community Services Boards (CSBs) to fund a comprehensive plan to raise wages and provide retention and hiring bonuses. Ultimately, the Senate included about $38 million to address pay issues at our local CSBs. The House recognized this as a concern as well and included about $25 million for this purpose. The conference report ditched both of those plans and zeroed out the money opting to study the issue during the interim.
- The budget includes $100 million for laboratory schools. What are those you ask? Laboratory schools, which have been allowed under the law for some time, are partnerships between public institutions of higher learning and local school divisions. The $100 million could have funded many other priorities in K-12. We should be investing in our public schools and working to create the best school system possible.
- The budget contains about $22.5 million for additional school resource officers (SROs). In the wake of the massacre at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and the grocery store in Buffalo, school safety and gun safety have been brought up around the country. This expenditure suggests that more resource officers are going to be the way to ensure school safety. While I have nothing against SROs, I think this reliance is not well-placed. I have known a lot of resource officers who have made a difference in the schools they’ve served. My ideal is an employee of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Department who writes tickets on Interstates 64 and 81 in the morning and teaches kids dance moves at a middle school in the afternoon. His rapport with students is admirable, and I think the relationships he develops and the example he sets is exactly what we want from resource officers. I know this is not the experience in every school nor for every student. I am also reminded that the resource officer at Parkland High School in Florida hid outside while children were being killed inside. While the details are still emerging, the Uvalde school system had an entire police force and as many as 19 officers waited outside of the building or classroom while 21 innocent people were massacred. We clearly have to do more than simply put armed police officers in our schools. We need to take a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to school safety.
You may recall that the primary hold up to producing a budget earlier was the difference between the House and Senate budgets on tax relief. The House had about $5.5 billion in tax relief while the Senate took a more modest approach, providing about $2.8 billion in tax relief. The conference report adopts a middle approach and provides about $3.8 billion in tax relief. This will result in one-time rebates of $250 per individual taxpayer and $500 for married couples, increases in the standard deduction for at least three years, a repeal of the state portion of the grocery tax, a new income tax deduction for military retirees, and making the federal Earned Income Tax Credit partially refundable.
Of course, all of this awaits action by the Governor.
The budget was formally communicated to the Governor yesterday. He has until June 16 to sign, amend, or veto line items in the budget. We could be back in Richmond as early as next week to consider his changes, but I anticipate it may be some time the week of June 20. The budget must be in place by the end of the month. Stay tuned.
Thank you for allowing me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If you have any questions or need assistance with a state agency, please contact my office in Charlottesville at (434) 296-5491 or in Hot Springs at (540) 837-2473 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.