Virginia lawmakers weigh a $500 bonus for cops, expanded eviction protections and a lifeline for struggling schools

By: , and - September 26, 2020 12:01 am

Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, left, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, confers with Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, right, as the Virginia House of Delegates begins their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

House and Senate budget writers presented their proposed amendments to Gov. Ralph Northam’s retooled spending plan Friday. Here’s a first look at where the two chambers landed on funding for schools, criminal justice reform, evictions and past-due utility bills.

The legislation is on its way to the floor of each chamber for an initial vote then lawmakers from the House and Senate will meet to work out the differences between their proposals.

Expungements, body cameras and a $500 bonus for police officers

Both chambers set aside millions to pay for a range of police reforms they’re pursuing, but the amounts reflect their diverging priorities and approaches.

The House budgeted nearly $18 million for its legislative package, much of it to cover the cost of a dramatic expansion of the state’s expungement laws that would automatically seal many criminal records after eight years — something Democrats in the chamber say they hope will make it easier for people convicted of crimes to rebuild their lives.

The Senate, which has rejected the prospect of automatic expungements and often (though not always) taken a more conservative approach to their reforms, budgeted less than half that amount for its own package of bills: $8 million, the bulk of it going to expand the use of body cameras in the state.

Members of the Senate did, however, find funding to send a friendly message to police officers: $500 cash bonuses at a total cost of $18.4 million.

As Democratic lawmakers advanced their police reform agenda over the past month, law enforcement groups and Republicans have often warned that their proposed bills would be interpreted by police as a demoralizing rebuke of their profession. Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said the bonuses are a way to show support for the profession while moving forward with reform.

The House included no such appropriation in their proposal and so far there’s been no word on what members think about the idea. But Democratic leaders in both chambers have strongly objected to any suggestions that they back protesters’ calls to defund the police — a rallying cry GOP lawmakers have been eager to link them to after a failed attempt to cut state aid to local police by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas.

House lawmakers Friday axed language in a bill proposed by the Senate that proposed limiting state funding to law enforcement agencies that fail to obtain professional accreditation or participate in mandatory data collection program.

“I don’t want the Virginia public to believe we want to cut police funding,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who serves as vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

A lifeline for struggling schools

Proposed state education spending has changed dramatically since the end of the 2020 session, when Democratic lawmakers proudly announced they had restored it to pre-2008 levels. But amid growing financial concerns from Virginia’s public schools, both the House and Senate budgets include millions of dollars to help K-12 education weather the pandemic.

Spending plans from both chambers include roughly $95.2 million for public schools in fiscal year 2021 to offset an expected decline in state sales tax revenue — one percent of which flows to local school divisions as basic state aid. The one-time funding will come from profits generated by “gray machines,” or electronic skill games, which were banned at the end of the 2020 session but granted a temporary reprieve when Gov. Ralph Northam proposed taxing them to raise money for a coronavirus relief fund.

Both chambers also allocated $200 million, or $159 per pupil, in unspent CARES Act dollars to help mitigate the reopening costs for schools. But the House version, unlike the Senate version, gives schools more flexibility in how they use state funding by waiving student-faculty ratio requirements for school counselors and English-as-a-second-language teachers.

It also waives a new requirement that schools dedicate a portion of state Lottery funds — a significant part of their operating budgets — for nonrecurring costs such as construction or renovations. And crucially, it directs the Department of Education not to revise school funding based on September enrollment counts, which have already taken a dramatic dip at schools across the state.

The Senate, on the other hand, preserved a two percent bonus for teachers in the second year of the spending plan that’s contingent on an increase in state revenues — language that isn’t included in the House budget.

The House and Senate also took different approaches to higher education and child care, two industries that have reported significant financial losses during the pandemic. For higher ed, the House is recommending $80 million in state funding for the first year of the two-year plan, which colleges and universities can use as “flexible spending” for operations, financial aid, or other COVID-related costs.

Additionally, House legislators suggested that colleges and universities receive nearly $118 million in CARES Act funding to cover pandemic-related costs like personal protective equipment and cleaning. The Senate recommended a more modest $65 million and both included language that would give schools the flexibility to use reserve funds to cover losses in auxiliary programs including housing and dining (but not athletics).

Both chambers retained funding increases to George Mason University and Old Dominion University to compensate for a growth in enrollment. And both proposed additional CARES Act dollars for child care providers, in differing amounts. The House proposed $60 million, and the Senate proposed $20 million.

Paying past-due electric bills

Both the House and the Senate killed a proposal by Gov. Ralph Northam to forgive unpaid residential utility bills using $320 million of funds from the more than half a billion state regulators say Dominion Energy has over-earned since 2017.

Instead, both budgets offer a significantly weakened form of Northam’s plan that would direct Dominion to forgive all customer balances that had remained unpaid for a certain amount of time (more than 30 days as of Sept. 30 for the Senate and more than 60 days as of Aug. 31 for the House).

Dominion would then be allowed during its 2021 triennial review to offset its earnings from 2017 to 2020 with the total of forgiven costs. That adjustment would reduce the amount of refunds customers could potentially receive.

The House budget would further direct that $120 million in federal CARES Act funding be used to offset utility customer debt more generally, a proposal absent from the Senate version.

The Northam administration did not respond to requests for comment on the lawmakers’ proposals.

Outside bill forgiveness, both budgets presented Friday support Northam’s proposal to extend the existing ban on utility disconnections to 60 days beyond the end of Virginia’s declared state of emergency or until conditions improve.

More cash-strapped utilities, such as electric cooperatives and municipal gas and water authorities, would be able to sidestep the ban if customer arrearages exceeded a certain amount of annual operating revenues. The House has set the threshold for exit at 2 percent of Virginia operating revenues for any utility regulated by the State Corporation Commission and at 1 percent for municipal utilities, which aren’t regulated by the SCC. The Senate would allow exits only for municipal utilities whose arrearages exceeded the 1 percent threshold.

Utilities would also be required to offer repayment plans of six to 24 months to customers unable to pay their bills. The House version would require that debt repayments be “sustainable and affordable for the customer.” Neither budget would allow the plans to include new deposits, down payments, fees, interest charges or penalties.

The repayment plan proposals diverge in several notable ways from a bill sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, that cleared the Senate earlier this month on a bipartisan vote.

That measure, which was the subject of extended negotiation, established repayment plans of up to 12 months for all utilities except municipal ones.

Searching for a compromise on evictions

Lawmakers have struggled during the special session to reach agreement on the best way to head off a wave of evictions amid widespread unemployment and expiring jobless benefits.

But throughout the debate, they’ve looked to the budget as the best vehicle for any moratorium or slow down because, unlike most bills the General Assembly adopts, the amended budget will take effect as soon as it is signed.

Both chambers are proposing complex rules that lay out two phases of protection, first barring most evictions for nonpayment of rent and the second allowing evictions to proceed if state rent relief funding is exhausted or a tenant doesn’t qualify.

For the first phase, the House leans on a federal moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control to halt eviction proceedings against people for whom the pandemic has created financial hardship. The Senate is proposing creating a state-level moratorium that would prohibit eviction filings against people claiming hardship and last a month longer than the CDC order, which expires Jan. 1.

The difference could become important because housing providers are suing to overturn the federal moratorium, meaning if the House’s approach is adopted and the moratorium is struck down, the more stringent protections in Virginia would also end.

In both plans, once those initial protections end, a weaker set would take effect through the end of the pandemic, allowing landlords to evict tenants, but only after first attempting to obtain aid through the state’s rent relief program or similar local programs.

Landlord groups say they’re still reviewing the two proposals, but expressed immediate objections to the Senate’s proposal to create a state-level moratorium.

Tenant advocates said both approaches fall short of providing the protections tenants need. They criticized provisions in both proposals that allow evictions to proceed in response to minor lease violations, such as having a house guest stay longer than permitted or having too many pets — a step they called unfair.

They also noted that the budget language in the two chambers would allow evictions in the second phase in cases where the state rent relief program was merely too slow in processing their applications.

“The big picture is that there are absolutely some good things in the budget language, but it doesn’t go far enough and leaves people out,” said Christie Marra, the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s director of housing advocacy. “We’re hopeful that we can continue to work with the legislators to get language in the final budget to protect all of these tenants, because look, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. We can’t afford to have anybody put out.”

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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.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.

Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.