Schools, welfare and a tunnel: How new Democratic majorities put their mark on their first budget

By: - March 12, 2020 6:04 pm

House Budget Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, speaks on the floor of the House of Delegates in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia lawmakers closed out their legislative session for the year Thursday with votes to send a $142 billion budget to Gov. Ralph Northam.

Here’s what’s in the two-year spending plan and a few of the ways new Democratic majorities put their stamp on Northam’s initial proposal.

$1.4 billion in new spending on schools

Accounting for inflation, lawmakers said the additional funding for the first time restores public schools to pre-2008 recession levels.

It is a $128 million increase over what Northam had proposed, though still millions short of what the State Board of Education has said it needs to meet Standards of Quality they adopted.

Lawmakers added:

  • 2 percent raises each year of the two year budget,
  • an additional $148 million for high-poverty schools,
  • $10.6 million to lower the costs of reduced-price lunches and
  • $4.6 million to boost shrinking rural school districts.

Extending the tuition freeze at state colleges and universities and boosting financial aid

Continuing the freeze, a proposal spearheaded by Republican leaders last year, was a point of extended debate between House and Senate budget negotiators. The House wanted to keep it going and the Senate wanted to focus on financial aid.

In the end, lawmakers did both, agreeing to the put $54.8 million into a pool of funds that colleges can tap into to make up the difference of any tuition increases they forgo.

They also set aside $60.6 million for financial aid to in-state students and earmarked an additional $25 million in student aid for the state’s two historically black universities, Virginia State University and Norfolk State University.

Temporarily scrapping a proposal to lower insurance premiums

Northam had proposed developing a reinsurance program, which other states have used to essentially buy down the cost of health plans on the public marketplace.

The General Assembly took the money out, telling Northam’s administration to work on getting the necessary federal approvals before they revisit the concept in future years.

Instead, they put in funding to increase payments to Medicaid providers, which are generally lower than other insurers and have been a point of contention within the industry since expansion last year.

Dental coverage for Medicaid patients

Currently, the state provides dental coverage for Medicaid patients who are minors, but not adults.

Expanding the program to include all recipients will cost an estimated $34 million over the next two years.

Lawmakers noted that in rural areas, free dental clinics draw huge crowds, demonstrating the need.

A 96-employee bureaucracy to regulate new casinos

The General Assembly passed legislation allowing casinos in five cities. To enforce all the rules and regulations they’ll have to follow, lawmakers funded the hiring of 96 new employees at the state lottery to manage the expansion of gambling. The cost will be recovered through hefty licensing fees the casinos will be required to pay.

They also gave the lottery permission to hire 10 employees to oversee a new licenses for sports betting and five employees to manage the newly legalized sales of lottery tickets online.

Affordable housing, a state-run eviction diversion program and homes for the mentally ill

Lawmakers established a pilot eviction diversion program last year. This year they funded its first two years of operations to the tune of $6.6 million.

The program will allow tenants facing lawsuits for nonpayment of rent to avoid evictions by establish payment plans with the court.

The budget also boosts a state fund to subsidize the construction of affordable housing by $60 million and sets aside $25.5 million for permanent supportive housing for adults with serious mental illness — enough for 630 new slots, which lawmakers said is enough to double the program’s capacity.

More cash assistance for the needy

Lawmakers included $34.2 million to boost Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits by 15 percent. Northam had proposed a 10 percent increase.

They also put in $2 million to subsidize transit passes for low-income families and boosted funding to subsidize long-acting contraceptives and expanded the program to include other forms of birth control.

A new pedestrian tunnel under Capitol Square

There’s already a network of tunnels under Capitol Square. A $25 million line item will expand it by offering an underground pedestrian connection between the new General Assembly Building currently under construction and the Capitol.

Lawmakers in the Senate pushed for the additional funding, noting new security screening requirements make it cumbersome to move between the Capitol and the office building where lawmakers do the bulk of their legislative work.

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.