Commentary: Republicans and Democrats Working Together

Commentary: Republicans and Democrats Working Together

The 2017 General Assembly session is complete, and I’m proud that we were able to accomplish our top priority for the year, addressing the $1.25 billion budget hole caused by a weaker than expected economy, in a bipartisan and collaborative manner, starting with the governor’s submitted budget. This was after passing nearly 1,800 laws mostly dealing with small legal items and a myriad of tweaks to the Virginia Code.

After Governor McAuliffe proposed his initial budget, the House and the Senate each had their own proposed budget. We then had to make the House and Senate budget identical through a process known as a “conference.”

Yet, there is some very good news for our state employees who will see more income through the budget. It includes important and frankly, overdue pay raises for teachers, college faculty and the Virginia Capitol and State Police.

The agreement would give a 2 percent raise to teachers and college and university faculty and provides Virginia’s share of an additional 1 percent raise for faculty at eight higher education institutions that did not give raises or bonuses last year, after a revenue shortfall forced the cancellation of a scheduled 3 percent raise for state employees and faculty last summer.

The pay increases for teachers, faculty and police come on top of the 3 percent raise that the House and Senate restored for state employees in our separate versions of the budget, which also would provide a nearly $7,000 increase in starting salary for Virginia State Police and an equal pay hike for current troopers.

Under the current pay-system, we are spending our time and your tax money to train state police officers, who then leave Virginia to serve in other states that would pay them twice as much. The rest of the country benefits from our quality training and we struggle to retain good law enforcement personnel. Now, this budget should alter that calculus.

We also restore about $17 million of the $76 million in funding for higher education institutions that Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s original proposed budget cut to address the revenue shortfall in the fiscal year that will begin July 1. Under the plan, no institution would lose more than 1.5 percent of its education and general funding.

We include money for a 2 percent raise for state-supported local employees, such as sheriff’s deputies, money to ease salary compression for deputies and state police that had been eliminated because of the revenue shortfall, and later restored by McAuliffe in his proposed budget.

Salary compression is when pay for veteran employees does not keep pace with the salaries of more recent hires.

The House prevailed in restoring more than $3 million of the nearly $4 million that the governor had proposed — and the Senate had eliminated — to improve Virginia’s problematic voter registration system and replace the federal election funds that are set to disappear.

The budget deal is a big win for affordable housing and includes $5 million for supportive housing for people with serious mental illness, as well as $100,000 to enable the State Board of Corrections to investigate suspicious deaths in regional and local jails. The compromise also includes an additional $1.5 million for helping victims of domestic violence. The money would allow the state to receive an additional $6 million in federal funds for the initiative.

Again, I am proud to have voted for this budget. The Virginia Constitution requires us to keep a balanced budget, and unfortunately, the shortfall of state revenues in 2016 forced us to make some tough decisions. However, the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, the executive and legislative branches, worked very well together despite the fractured political environment to propose a fiscally responsible and reasonably progressive budget.