Now, if it’s no trouble, might we bother you for a budget?

The related dysfunctions the belated budget causes, particularly for local school districts, was the result of retail politics.

June 26, 2023 12:03 am

"Shouldn’t lawmakers with essential roles in advancing the budget toward a timely enactment be a bit more mindful of the well-being of the state government and the Virginians that it supports than of their own reelection?" writes Mercury columnist Bob Lewis. (Sarah Vogelsong/The Virginia Mercury)

When Virginia finished its party primary elections last Tuesday night and locked in full slates of Democratic and Republican nominees for November’s pivotal legislative elections, just nine days and a wakeup remained to pass a budget until a new fiscal year begins.

The procrastination and related dysfunctions the belated budget causes, particularly for local school districts, was the result of retail politics.

At least that’s the conclusion drawn a few weeks earlier by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, now retiring and at last able to speak freely after 32 years in the Senate.

“I think that the impasse on the budget has been more because of primaries, political considerations,” Norment told the Mercury’s Graham Moomaw in a June 13 interview. “And that some of the leaders have been distracted.”

I reckon so.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria was a lead member of the conference committee from the Democratic-controlled Senate tasked with negotiating a compromise with conferees from the Republican-ruled House over differences in their two versions of the budget. He was waging a difficult primary battle in the 36th Senate District to Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky. Barker lost by 662 votes out of nearly 15,000 cast, closing his Senate career after four terms.

The other top Senate budget negotiator, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, is retiring after 32 years.

In the interest of balance, this year’s primaries were extraordinary in several aspects.

The nomination battles come at a time of unprecedented retirements prompted largely by the state’s first experiment in nonpartisan reapportionment in 2021 that showed no regard for incumbents. That’s particularly true in the Senate where 10 retirements (five from each party) accounted for the loss of slightly more than 230 years of combined tenure (more if you toss in prior service in the House of Delegates).

Adding to the Senate’s already staggering attrition of institutional memory, 11 sitting senators representing just over a century of aggregate experience — 10 of them Democrats accounting for 96 of those years — faced primary opponents. Five of the 11 — Democrats Barker, Chap Petersen of Fairfax, Joe Morrissey of Richmond and Lionel Spruill of Chesapeake, and Republican Amanda Chase of Chesterfield — lost. That cost the Democrats 44 years of Senate tenure compared to just eight for the GOP.

Then consider the enormous stakes the primaries play in this year’s pivotal races for all 140 General Assembly seats. The Democrats control the 40-member Senate by two seats with Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears holding the deciding vote any time there’s a 20/20 split. Republicans control the House and the executive branch, with Gov. Glenn Youngkin leading a determined and richly financed campaign to win the Senate and, with it, total GOP control of state government for the first time since 2013.

Finally, this year’s primary fell quite late. Usually they are within the first couple of Tuesdays in June. By falling on the 20th this year, House and Senate budget negotiators face a nearly impossible timeline for shaking off post-primary hangovers, shaking hands on a budget compromise, summoning the full House and Senate back to Richmond to pass it, sending it to Youngkin for his amendments and vetoes, and then having the full House and Senate return to the Capitol to vote on any changes the governor makes. Accomplishing all of that by the first tick-tock of July would be a feat worthy of a Homeric epic.

Admittedly, this year’s primary season packed in a lot.

But the budget is a whole lot. It is the most important single piece of legislation the General Assembly enacts every year — so important that the budget bill’s provisions override statutory state law.

Tardiness is not new. In 2022, the Legislature dawdled and bickered until June 9 before passing the budget conference report. Youngkin signed it into law on June 22, eight days before the existing budget would have expired and left the commonwealth unable to pay its bills.

Things aren’t as dire this year. Preliminary appropriations for state fiscal year 2024 are included in the two-year budget passed a year ago, so in the likelihood that lawmakers blow past their June 30 deadline, state government finances won’t reset to zero. But in Virginia, amendments are necessary in odd-numbered years to adjust for multiple eventualities in the second half of the biennium, including changes in state policy and spending priorities or, in bad economic times, to address revenue shortfalls.

As they prepared to adjourn in February, lawmakers did pass a so-called “skinny budget” that, among other things, covered a $250 million shortfall for public schools caused by a faulty data tool the state uses to calculate education funding.

Budget differences so far have largely revolved around the Senate’s demand for an additional $1 billion for K-12 public schools and the insistence by the governor and the House on tax cuts.

Dominant among items left in limbo is how much local school districts can offer their teachers for the coming school year. Under the budget already in place, Virginia teachers are getting a 5% raise in the coming school year. 

With the state under competitive pressure to boost average teacher pay to the national average, the House and Senate versions of the budget include an additional 2% raise for 2024. But until the budget becomes law (or very close to it), school districts remain on hold, not knowing whether they can sweeten pay packages and retain teachers who now find themselves in great demand because of nationwide teacher shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.

So shouldn’t the budget enjoy a somewhat higher priority?

Shouldn’t lawmakers with essential roles in advancing the budget toward a timely enactment be a bit more mindful of the well-being of the state government and the Virginians that it supports than of their own reelection?

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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]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]