Yes, Virginia, we have a budget!
This year I was thrilled to be appointed again by the Speaker as a conferee to work out differences between the House and Senate budgets. This evening, we adopted the final report. I believe it is a budget Virginians can be proud of.
While individual bills often get the most attention, the budget is arguably the most important reflection of our values. This year’s budget process has been a roller coaster ride. After adopting an initial budget in March 2020, we had to cut $2.8 billion as a result of a COVID-driven revenue shortfall. Going into session, we anticipated a revenue rebound of $1.2 billion. Finally, a mid-session re-forecast provided an additional $730 million. That rebound was great news – but it still means we have about a billion dollars less in revenue from just a year ago.
Here are just a few of the budget highlights:
- Income Tax Relief – $221M revenue reduction in order to fund income tax relief to individuals and businesses related to conformity with the federal CARES Act.
- State Employee Pay Raises – 5% pay raise for state employees beginning July 1, 2021.
- Virginia Retirement System – $100M deposit to the VRS to reduce unfunded liabilities. This is a key investment that will help to stabilize the system for the long-term.
- PreK-12 Education – $443M to hold public school funding steady from the original 2020 appropriation; $40M for schools to address COVID-related learning loss; and, $76M to support increases in school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and behavioral analysts.
- Teacher Pay Raises – State share of 5% pay raises for teachers. The Governor originally proposed a 2% bonus.
- Preschool – $11.1M for increased investment in the Virginia Preschool Initiative.
- Northern Virginia Cost-to-Compete – $14.6M more in supplemental funding to Northern Virginia in recognition of the higher cost of living for our region.
- Higher Education – $149M to our institutions of higher learning to maintain affordable access through tuition stabilization and need-based financial assistance.
- Human Resources – $173M in new spending for human resources, with a focus on long-term care, maternal and child health, and behavioral and developmental services. This includes $14.2M to add 435 Developmental Disability waiver slots in FY22, bringing the total for FY22 to 985 slots.
- Vaccinations – $89M for mass vaccination efforts to maximize new federal dollars.
- Water Quality – An additional $155M to meet our Chesapeake Bay restoration targets, including investments in wastewater treatment, stormwater management, and agricultural best management practices.
- Broadband – Additional funding of $99M for broadband deployment in unserved areas.
- Virginia Employment Commission – $10M to increase customer service levels and $5M to finish modernizing VEC’s IT systems to enable more efficient service delivery.
- Voter Registration – $16.7M to replace and strengthen the state’s voter registration system.
- Transportation – $83.5M to improve commuter rail service on the VRE Manassas Line and $32.4M to support and stabilize Metro.
- Reserves – An additional $250M to the Revenue Reserve Fund. This brings combined balances in reserves to $2.16 billion, or about 9% of general fund revenues.
That last bullet deserves additional comment. Something we are proud of in Virginia is that we have maintained a AAA bond rating since 1938 – longer than any other state. This saves Virginia considerable amounts of money and reflects a commitment to keeping our budget structurally sound. While states are currently the beneficiaries of large amounts of federal assistance, it would be irresponsible to think that this will continue in perpetuity. Building up our reserves will ensure that Virginia can successfully transition once federal COVID-19 funding goes away.
Like most members, I introduced my own budget amendments and was pleased to see many of them incorporated into the final budget. These included funding for Northern Virginia Family Services, Brain Injury Services, Chesapeake Bay restoration, the Virginia International Trade Plan, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension, and our regional planning district commissions.
You can find a more detailed overview of the budget here and a list of my amendments here.
Few issues have garnered more constituent communication than SB1303, which deals with bringing our children back into the classroom. This is a personal issue for my family as well, as our 12 year old attempts to navigate his first year of middle school. While he is continuing to learn, and his teachers have done an amazing job, the learning loss is definitely real.
When SB1303 came over from the Senate, it simply mandated in-person learning. What came out of the House, and was eventually passed by the Senate, takes us to full in-person learning, but has guardrails to ensure safety. This includes incorporating CDC and VDH guidelines to the maximum extent practical and the ability of a school board to move specific schools back to virtual learning based on transmission metrics. Importantly, the bill allows parents to choose a virtual approach for their students based on family situations. All teachers must be offered the vaccine prior to in-person learning (which is occurring now under Phase 1b) and the bill maintains the current process for teachers to work virtually through a reasonable ADA accommodation.
The bill passed with a strong bi-partisan vote of 88Y-9N in the House and 36Y-3N in the Senate. I voted aye.
Standards of Learning
The dreaded SOL tests! It is a topic of much consternation when I speak with parents, students, and teachers alike. The Code of Virginia simply establishes that there will be SOL assessments, the purpose of which is to ensure that educational progress can be compared across Virginia. That is a laudable goal. Unfortunately, many of these tests have turned into high-stakes end-of-the-year tests that can promote rote memorization over critical thinking and applying what has been learned to the real world.
This year we passed changes to the SOL assessments that I am genuinely excited about. HB2027 replaces end-of-the-year tests with a through-assessment model where students take a series of three lower stakes tests throughout the year. That way teachers have a better sense of where a student is starting out, can make mid-year adjustments, and then see how the student has progressed at the end of the year. While the bill applies only to SOL tests from grades three through eight, if it is successful, it could be applied to all levels.