Column: Budgets Express Values; I Voted No

Column: Budgets Express Values; I Voted No

Last week was budget week in the General Assembly. The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee each presented their amendments to Governor Northam’s budget and both chambers spent a long day on the floor considering the amendments and overall budget.

Budgets are a clear expression of values and priorities, which are reflected in the differences between the House and Senate budgets. 

As compared to Governor Northam’s introduced budget, the House budget cuts more than $300 million from public preK-12 education.The largest change is a reduction of $210 million for the at-risk add on. This is additional funding school divisions receive based on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals. With 60% of Alexandria’s students being eligible for free and reduced-price meals, this is a disappointing loss for our school system. Compared to the introduced budget, it also includes cutting potential salary raises for teachers by 20% ($68 million) and removing an increase in instructional positions for English Learner students ($21 million). It also substantially cuts early childhood education by delaying an increase to the number of Virginia Preschool Initiative slots for three-year-olds ($19.4 million) and eliminating a mixed delivery pilot program serving infants and toddlers ($6.7 million). Additionally, it replaces $500 million in grants for school construction and modernization with a loan rebate program, which forces school divisions to use debt capacity to address aging infrastructure. This is a significant challenge in our district and across the Commonwealth that will take $25 billion to address; around 40% of public schools are at or near capacity and more than half of them are at least 50 years old.

Furthermore, it rolls-back progress intended to help address crises like affordable housing and climate change. The budget slashes $190 million in proposed funding for the Housing Trust Fund, when our community and others continue to lose affordable housing. It harms efforts to keep our waters clean by removing funding for needed combined sewer outfall projects, including a $40 million cut to Alexandria. It also removes proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which go towards low-income energy efficiency and weatherization programs and the Community Flood Preparedness fund. In December, Alexandria received almost $4 million in initial grant awards from this fund for flooding mitigation projects. 

The budget also eliminates: funding for certain historic and cultural projects across Virginia, including $500,000 for the historic Black Douglass Memorial Cemetery in Old Town; $27.5 million in funding for a new gun violence prevention initiative, the Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention; and $2.7 million for voter outreach and education. 

Finally, by removing the proposed increase to make the Earned Income Tax Credit partially refundable (at a cost of $315 million) and instead doubling the standard deduction (at a cost of $2.1 billion), the budget eliminates tax relief for families who need it the most while foregoing more than $1.5 billion in projects and services.

For these reasons and more, I could not vote for the House budget. The Senate budget has many of the introduced funding levels and budget conferees will now be appointed to produce a final budget. I will work with my colleagues to fight for the values of our district and the inclusion of these necessary investments in education, housing, the environment, and more.