OCT 16, 2020, 5:21 PM
Updated 7:45 p.m.
Virginia lawmakers passed a new budget on Friday evening, capping a months-long special session in which the Democratic majority drove sweeping changes to policing in Virginia and tackled the impact of the pandemic on health, the economy, and education. Police leaders say they can largely live with the reforms, while Republicans said the new budget will make it harder for law enforcement to do its job.
“Over the course of the special session, we have led the way where others have yet to act,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) from the floor following the vote. “Our federal government and states across the country talked about passing meaningful police and criminal justice reform. They tried and they failed. We got it done, and now Virginia is a shining example of how to enact these necessary reforms.”
Filler-Corn said the budget was evidence that legislators in Virginia had “met the challenges of the moment” the country is in, by offering relief to people who are struggling because of the pandemic and economic crisis while remaining fiscally responsible.
The budget passed by a vote of 23 to 15 in the Senate, and a vote of 63-35 in the House.
“We have done incredibly good work in terms of taking significant steps forward in terms of criminal justice reform, in terms of COVID-19 relief, in terms of addressing affordable housing and addressing eviction prevention and housing instability, and addressing issues in the budget that were brought about because of the pandemic,” said House Democratic Whip Del. Alfonso Lopez, who represents parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties.
The $134 billion, two-year plan spends federal CARES Act funding that must be exhausted by Dec. 30 and puts off much of the new spending Democrats had hoped to implement when they passed an ambitious new budget in March. Lawmakers froze that new spending in April amid statewide stay-home orders, and they kept much of it unallotted as they shifted shrunken state revenues to new priorities surfaced by the pandemic. In recent weeks the House of Delegates and state Senate each passed a budget, and ultimately blended their proposals to form the conference budget that passed on Friday.
“The conference budget really furthers the state down the path of restoring investments that were unallotted in many critical areas, and also continues the legislature down the path of allocating federal aid to help people in need right now,” said Chris Duncombe, policy director at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a think tank based in Richmond.
In health, the new budget allocates $328 million in federal funding to cover testing, contact tracing, and protective equipment. The budget expands Medicaid by reducing barriers for legal permanent residents, adds adult dental benefits, and extends postpartum coverage; on the other hand, it largely keeps in place cuts to developmental disability care and some mental health services.
Under education, the budget allocates some $220 million in federal money for school reopening costs and provides $120 million in federal funding and $60 million in state funding to support institutes of higher education. Stripped away from the budget is funding for a tuition freeze, as well as raises for teachers in the coming year, although the spending bill provides language to hike teacher pay in 2022 if revenues are sufficient.
Also in the spending bill are increases for the state’s Housing Trust Fund, including $12.5 million dedicated to rent and mortgage relief. In addition, the budget assigns $100 million in federal funding to utility relief and includes protections against evictions through Dec. 31, 2020. A previous ban on evictions in Virginia expired Sept. 7, and a federal eviction ban in place until the end of the year applies only to those properties with federally-backed mortgages.
Furthermore, the budget provides $18.6 million to fund police and criminal justice reform bills, as well as $6.6 million to fund grants for body-worn cameras. Under this budget, police would receive a one-time, $500 bonus. The budget partially restores funding for public defenders, and it also partially restores funding that had been unallotted for courts and corrections.
Republican Del. Dave LaRock of Loudoun County said he would vote against the budget primarily because of the changes to policing.
“Democrats have taken what is already a difficult career and made it far less attractive in many ways,” said LaRock.
The budget’s funding for policing reflects a package of more than a dozen bills that both Democratic-controlled chambers of the General Assembly approved in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. These include a ban on no-knock search warrants, a ban on most chokeholds, and a bill to give the attorney general the authority to investigate patterns or practices of misconduct.
Other proposals did not clear the legislature, including ending qualified immunity legal protection for police accused of misconduct, defelonizing assaults on police officers, and barring law enforcement from using tear gas.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said police negotiated and got the bills “to where we can work with them, but we still have some concerns.” Schrad said her group planned to recommend amendments to Northam, and she said police were pleased to see legislation move forward on the decertification of officers for misconduct, as well as additional training and accreditation.
Northam must approve both the budget and new bills for them to go into effect.
One stumbling block for the budget has been a constitutional amendment on redistricting. Voters are considering whether to change who draws Virginia’s voting districts. When they were in the minority, Democrats supported amending the state Constitution to form a 16-member, bipartisan commission responsible for drawing districts. Since Democrats took control of the General Assembly last year, the party has soured on the amendment and is now actively working to convince voters to reject it. House Democrats are particularly opposed to the amendment, and they resisted an attempt by fellow Democrats in the state Senate to write into the budget language directions for how the commission would function.
“On the House side, we do not want the public to believe that the constitutional amendment can be fixed by statute,” Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), a budget negotiator, told DCist/WAMU.
To skirt the issue, Sickles said lawmakers will not immediately send the budget to Northam, which would trigger a seven-day window for him to act on it. Rather, Sickles said lawmakers would formally communicate the spending proposal “within the seven days around the election, maybe later,” so that the governor could add a budget amendment in the event voters approve the redistricting change.
This means the budget will be enacted weeks from now, and any state funding will be frozen until then.
Sickles pointed out that Northam can still spend federal dollars, and he noted as an example that the governor this week announced he would use federal money to award $1,500 in hazard pay to more than 40,000 home health care workers.
The budget leaves intact reserve funds for Virginia, reflecting both Democrats’ and Republicans’ wish to keep Virginia’s sterling credit rating.
“We did not touch our reserve funds at all,” Sickles said. “We’re in a very good fiscal position.”
This story was updated to reflect the results of the budget votes on Friday evening.