What else is in the budget: More money for lawmakers, police bodycam moratorium, abortion scrutiny

By: - February 24, 2019 11:32 am
Virginia State Capitol

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed on a spending plan that halts college tuition hikes, gives raises to state employees and teachers and socks away a half billion in rainy day funding.

But those are just the biggies. Here are some of the other things lawmakers slipped in that are less likely to make headlines (along with a few of the things that got cut):

$4.25 million per year to boost pay for lawmakers and their staff

The new allocation increases the allowance paid to lawmakers who attend official meetings outside of session from $300 to $400. They would only get the higher rate if they attend a meeting in the morning as well as in the afternoon. (Travel and lodging costs are reimbursed separately.)

The last time lawmakers increased their per-diem was in 2016, when they raised it from $200 to $300.

“Some fiscal conservatives were objecting and I said, ‘Fine, don’t take it,’” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City. “And as of today, not one legislator has refused to take it.”

He said the increase acknowledges the long days lawmakers often work, especially since the General Assembly has taken steps to consolidate out-of-session meetings to a few days a week.

The funding won’t change lawmaker’s base salaries, which are set at about $18,000 a year plus a $185 per diem while the General Assembly is in session.

The budget amendment does boost a pool of funding for senior lawmakers to hire or pay staffers, providing $125,000 more funding for legislative assistants for the Speaker of the House, bringing the total to more than $277,000. The majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate along with the chairs of the money committees in both bodies would receive an additional $46,000, bringing the total extra funding each of those positions receives for staffing to $67,000.

Blocking the AG’s office from taking Bloomberg money

This one has kind of flown below the radar in Virginia, but conservative groups have taken notice.

In 2017, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office was one of 10 state attorney general’s  offices awarded a Michael Bloomberg-funded grant to hire a special assistant attorney general dedicated to challenging Trump-administration environmental regulation rollbacks.

Critics called it “law enforcement for hire.” And Republicans in the General Assembly apparently have not looked kindly on the arrangement, including an amendment in the budget that specifically blocks Herring’s office from accepting outside funding for positions or litigation.

“There’s a question of objectivity,” Norment said.

Herring’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Saturday, but despite being awarded the funding, his office told the blog Bacon’s Rebellion last month that despite receiving the grant, “No such funding was received and no such attorney is employed here.”

More scrutiny of state funding for abortions

Despite the fact that no legislation on the topic advanced, abortion was, briefly, a huge topic of debate, and the budget reflects that.

An amendment agreed to by House and Senate negotiators requires the Department of Health to produce a monthly report detailing the number of abortions funded by Medicaid and a “description of the nature of the fetal abnormality, to the extent permitted by law.”

State law allows Medicaid funding for abortion in cases in which a physician certifies that “the fetus will be born with a gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or with a gross and totally incapacitating mental deficiency.”

Police body cameras shelved

Police body cameras have been widely adopted, but for years local prosecutors’ offices and state officials have been concerned about the cost that follows their implementation.

Namely, they create hours of new evidence that prosecutors must review.

Lawmakers’ took a two-fold approach to the issue. First, they wrote a requirement into the budget that any localities that approve a body-camera program fund at least one new assistant commonwealth’s attorney position for every 75 body cameras they roll out.

A second amendment places a moratorium on body camera use by state agencies, including the state police, which have 400 units they’ve yet to roll out.

“We do have a closet somewhere full of body cameras,” House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, acknowledged.

Disaster shelters dropped

The House and Senate compromise cuts $4.25 million in funding proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam for the state to purchase supplies to set up disaster relief shelters.

Last year, the state got stuck with a $31 million bill from a private contractor when it scrambled to set up three major shelters as Hurricane Florence approached and the governor issued a mandatory evacuation order to several thousand people in low-lying coastal areas.

The storm never hit Virginia, but the state still had to pay for the barely-used shelters, prompting lawmakers to question whether they were getting gouged and Northam’s administration to develop the $4.2 million plan to allow the state to set up emergency shelters on its own.

In rejecting the proposal, lawmakers are instead using budget language to direct Northam’s administration to study alternatives and “develop a plan for the competitive procurement of services and supplies from third-parties during natural disasters based upon reasonable cost.”

Census outreach cut

The U.S. census is a big, decennial deal, determining everything from how congressional and state legislative seats are apportioned to how $800 billion in federal funding is divvied up.

Northam had proposed $1.5 million in funding to establish a commission and outreach efforts to make sure as many people as possible are counted, particularly minority groups that advocates say are often underrepresented. It’s an approach dozens of states have adopted amid concerns their population will be undercounted.

The budget compromise eliminates that funding.

The weed deal that wasn’t

Every year, a few lawmakers introduce bills to decriminalize or otherwise reduce penalties for marijuana possession. And every year, they die in committee.

Norment, in an effort to work around that annual impediment, included language in the Senate version of the budget that mirrored legislation he introduced last year to reduce the penalty for first-time possession to a fine. The conviction could later be expunged under the proposal.

The proposal didn’t make it out of the budget conference, instead becoming a bargaining chip.

“The budget conference process is always an experience of giving and taking and negotiating,” Norment said. “And that was part of the negotiation process for other consideration. No, I’m not going to tell you what it was.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.