The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The big buzz at the Virginia Capitol Wednesday wasn’t excitement over the new state budget.
It was the construction work on the tunnel being dug beneath the complex, which rattled the historic building throughout the day as lawmakers approved a long-overdue two-year spending plan.
Unlike Capitol Square, the budget didn’t have any big holes in it this year after an influx of revenue and federal pandemic relief dollars gave policymakers plenty of spending leeway.
The budget now heading to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk includes big pay raises for state employees, teachers and first responders, significant new investments in education, mental health care and gun violence prevention and roughly $4 billion in tax relief, a top priority for Youngkin.
Combined, the tax cuts could mean an extra $1,108 for an average family of four, according to a budget staff calculation, including direct rebate payments of up to $250 per person or $500 per married couple.
The budget was supposed to be finished before legislators ended their regular session in mid-March. But the Democratic Senate and Republican House of Delegates didn’t reach an agreement swiftly, leading to a rare June workday for state legislators, many of whom just learned the parameters of the budget deal a few days ago.
“It was a long haul,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, who negotiated the deal with Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, adding the final result is a “fiscally sound, bipartisan budget we can all be proud of.”
Several lawmakers gave speeches Wednesday about items they weren’t happy with or areas where they felt more money was needed. But the bipartisan budget deal overwhelmingly passed both chambers, with only a handful of dissenting votes from both Republicans and Democrats.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who voted against the budget, called it “probably the most opaque budget negotiation we could have imagined,” adding that most lawmakers learned about the details in media reports after months of private talks between the negotiators.
Simon also inveighed against legislating via the budget on issues — like marijuana policy, sports betting and transportation projects — that could not be resolved through the normal legislative process. “That’s not how we ought to be doing things going forward,” Simon said.
The Senate vote was 32-4. The House vote was 88-7.
Leaders in both chambers hailed the two-year budget compromise, the product of several months’ worth of private negotiations, as delivering on core priorities.
“We put our money where our mouth is and worked together to do what is best in the post-pandemic recovery,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said in a news release. “This biennial budget is a win/win for Virginians across the Commonwealth.”
House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the budget “accomplishes a great deal of what House Republicans told Virginians we’d work toward when we asked for their votes in November.”
“This budget shows our commitment to improving Virginians’ lives, helping our economy during uncertain times, all while protecting the taxpayers,” Gilbert said in a news release. “This is a budget every Virginian can be proud of.”
Youngkin, who has line-item veto powers over budget bills, now gets to take his own swing at the deal. On Wednesday, some Democrats said they hoped he won’t try to change too much before lawmakers meet again later this month ahead of a June 30 deadline to finalize the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“There’s been a lot of work put into this and I hope he just leaves it alone,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.
Sen David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, disagreed, saying Youngkin should participate fully and he shouldn’t be asked to stand down because the General Assembly is delivering it late.
“We’d basically be encouraging our future selves to continue this sort of practice and keep us here in June over and over again,” Suetterlein said.
Once the budget is officially sent to Youngkin in the next few days, the governor will have seven days to review it and make his own recommendations.
“The governor is pleased that the General Assembly has moved forward on the budget and adopted a great framework which delivers on his key priorities to give Virginians tax relief, pass the largest education budget and invest more in law enforcement and behavioral health,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter. “The governor and his team continue to review the language of the budget and discuss potential amendments.”
Highlights of the budget include:
- Tax cuts that double the state’s standard income tax deduction, make the state’s earned-income tax credit partially refundable to help low-income workers and eliminate the state-level tax on groceries and personal hygiene products like diapers, wipes and tampons.
- $13 million in gun violence prevention funding, which will be distributed to local governments, law enforcement and community organizations for initiatives meant to reduce shootings.
- $1.25 billion for school construction and renovation, $100 million for K-12 “lab schools” in partnership with colleges and universities, more than $270 million to increase support positions in public schools and $104 million to keep college tuition lower for in-state students.
- At least $320 million to widen Interstate 64 to three lanes between Richmond and Williamsburg.
- A 10 percent raise for state employees and teachers spread across the two budget years, as well as a $1,000 one-time bonus in the first year.
- 37 percent raises for direct care staff at Virginia’s struggling mental health facilities.
- $1.4 billion in additional funding for health care.
Virginia Mercury intern Rahul Sharma contributed reporting.
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