Legislative priorities, new and deferred, face cold reality of a wrecked state budget

August 17, 2020 12:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam stood with Democratic leaders in March as he declared a state of emergency on Thursday, freeing up state funds and resources to respond to COVID-19. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Just six months ago, Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Democrats who had just taken charge of the General Assembly were pondering how they’d spend a nearly $300 million windfall, fruits of an exuberant economy and gaudy state tax collections.

The governor had enjoyed a verdant fiscal environment for the state since when he took office in January 2018 and in the fall and winter of last year, things were looking particularly flush.

General fund tax collections that underwrite core government services such as public schools and law enforcement almost hit $20 billion in Virginia fiscal year 2018, then blew past that threshold for the first time the following fiscal year. To put some scale to it, the $21.3 billion collected in fiscal 2019 largely from taxes paid on income and retail sales is twice the total general fund revenue in fiscal year 2000.

Through most of the state government fiscal year that ended June 30, general fund tax collections for some months came in at six to seven times the rate necessary to support budgeted spending. Even in March, three-fourths of the way through fiscal year 2020, revenues were still growing at 6.6%, double the prescribed annual growth rate.

Then came March and the epidemiological catastrophe that wrecked the economy, forced a season of home sequestration, rendered busy city streets silent and barren, swamped hospital intensive care units and turned nursing homes into charnel houses with refrigerator trucks outside serving as makeshift morgues.

Virginia lawmakers raced to adjourn their annual winter session and get home ahead of the lockdown, waiting to see how bad things would get from the disaster. Now, they know that unemployment has hit levels not seen since the Great Depression and that the U.S. gross domestic product plunged at an annualized rate of 33 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

But wait! There’s more!

No sooner did the lockdown arrest the coronavirus’s deadly spread than George Floyd, a Black man, died with his neck crushed for nearly nine minutes into the asphalt of a Minneapolis street beneath the knee of a White policeman with a record of abusing people. Righteous rage spawned nationwide protests not seen since the Vietnam War era as millions of people of all races continue to protest inequitable police treatment of people of color. With bronze altars to Confederate leaders being pulled from their pedestals in Richmond and other Virginia cities, law-enforcement reform legislation that was mothballed last winter takes on new urgency in the dog days General Assembly special session that opens on Tuesday, joining bills dealing with public schooling in the time of coronavirus and the scope and duration of a governor’s emergency powers.

Now, Virginia no longer has cash to burn. What was a surplus is now a preliminary $236 million year-end deficit. Lawmakers will learn the scope of the fiscal problem Tuesday morning just before the session convenes when Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne briefs the legislature’s budget-writing committees.

In the five months since legislators broke camp on their regular winter session, issues that then would have seemed bizarre — even unfathomable — are now sad facts of life, and the bills on the calendar reflect that.

For instance, does the state pay the costs of providing computers and home internet access for students whose classrooms are closed by the pandemic and instruction is being done virtually, or should their parents receive tax-supported vouchers they can use for in-person instruction at private schools?

There are several Republican-authored bills to provide tax relief — understandable given the pain so many families have felt from job losses or work reductions — at a time of atrophied revenue collections.

Perhaps no issue will be as passionate as that over how policing is conducted, particularly when it involves people of color. Democrats believe their moment is at hand to capitalize on broad public support for protests against police violence against Black people that Floyd’s killing unleashed. Among the measures they’ve introduced are bills that would restore parole (which was banned in 1995), reform sentencing in criminal cases, allow conditional release of aged or disabled inmates, require crisis intervention training for police, empower the attorney general to investigate and civilly litigate patterns of law-enforcement abuse and suspend deadlines for paying fines, costs and judgments through next May.  

But Republicans, now a minority in both the House and Senate, aren’t sitting it out. They’ve offered some legislation that binds police officers and other bills that favor police.

Senate GOP Leader Tommy Norment introduced a bill that would ban the police use of choke holds and other neck restraints. Other Republican bills would establish a three-year Commission on Civil Rights and Policing to study and recommend reforms and require more state oversight of local police training academies. A GOP bill would ease the process of expunging criminal records for people who have been granted simple pardons from the governor.

On the flip side, some Republican legislation would increase the severity of felony charges for assaulting police officers, firefighters or other emergency responders in the scope of their duties, allow officers themselves to sue people or businesses for the “abridgement of deprivation” an officer’s rights while on duty.

Republicans have also seized on a damning state inspector general’s report on the secretive and murky operations of the Parole Board and the extent to which Northam’s administration allowed it. Del. Jason Miyares offers a bill that would compel the board to notify crime victims or their survivors before deciding whether to release an inmate convicted of the offense. And Del. David Suetterlein’s bill would make all votes by Parole Board members — now shielded from disclosure — public information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The criminal justice reforms, however, are hardly comprehensive. They address only street-level symptoms of centuries-old racial inequity. The roster of legislation on file at the end of last week doesn’t address longstanding disparities in areas such as education, healthcare, housing, employment and economic security without which reconciliation will never be possible.

Unfortunately, they all require significant infusions of cash at a time when the state finds itself — as most of us do — strapped.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]