(The Center Square) – The Virginia House's version of the state’s two-year budget that passed Tuesday primarily deals with the financial losses and other obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed a significantly stripped down budget in April in light of the prospective economic decline and requested the General Assembly to re-evaluate some proposals during a special session in light of new economic forecasts.
The House spending proposal maintains the crux of the original cuts but includes potential funding increases for state employees and other initiatives that go into effect only if the state has enough revenue to fund them. The budget also includes additional guaranteed money for education to offset a loss of funding, assistance for people who have been unable to pay their rent and utility bills, and funding for broadband.
A portion of Virginia’s education budget is reliant on sales tax revenue, which has declined since the pandemic hit. An amendment approved with bipartisan support would allocate $95.2 million in revenue accrued by skilled gaming machines to offset that loss for fiscal 2021. It would be a one-time allocation that is not intended to become precedent for future education funding, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said on the House floor.
The budget also allocates $55 million in general fund revenue to expand access to affordable housing, provide rental assistance and support the homeless in fiscal 2021. The budget language would allow eligible renters to apply for funding to pay for the entirety of their back rent and allow landlords to pursue evictions only after they have applied for the aid for their tenants.
To assist renters who have been negatively affected by COVID-19, the budget would appropriate about $120 million in COVID-19 relief funds to pay down the accounts of customers who are behind on payments. This differs from the governor’s proposal, which seeks to use excess money from Dominion Energy to forgive some of the unpaid utility bills. The House budget language also would extend the utility shutoff prohibition until 60 days after the state of emergency ends or until economic or health conditions improve.
The budget also would allocate about $50 million to assist with broadband infrastructure in unserved areas in fiscal 2022. This is primarily designed to make virtual work and virtual school more accessible.
About $207.4 million of potential funding is contingent on positive revenue forecasts, which includes bonuses for state employees, including police.
The budget also allocates $17.8 million in fiscal 2021 and $10.6 million in fiscal 2022 to enact criminal justice and policing reform bills passed by the body. Most of that funding pays for an automatic expungement of certain crimes (about $14.3 over the biennium) and earned sentence credit reform (about $10.3 million over the biennium).
Republicans objected to the criminal justice reform spending and proposed additional measures to increase funding for law enforcement.
“House Democrats took a series of votes that make it absolutely clear that they’re on the side of criminals, not victims and law enforcement,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement. “Republicans offered a series of simple, common sense amendments designed to encourage the further professionalization of local law enforcement, encourage police reform, and hold bad actors accountable. Democrats killed each effort.”
Over the biennium, the budget would cost $134.2 billion; $66.8 billion in fiscal 2021 and $67.4 billion in fiscal 2022. The amendments would increase the governor's proposed budget budget by $404.2 million, which is offset by savings and adjustments in revenue forecasts. Those forecasts are $207.4 million higher than the governor’s proposed budget, according to the office of Del. Luke Torian, D Dumfries, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. It also appropriates $1.4 billion of federal COVID-19 relief funds.