Opinion: Commentary: Virginia State Legislature Must Make Tough Decisions

Opinion: Commentary: Virginia State Legislature Must Make Tough Decisions

All new spending in the state’s new two-year budget is on hold.

Instead of reporting on the accomplishments of the General Assembly’s 2020 session, in recent weeks I have chosen to provide information about the COVID-19 crisis and its impacts. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is likely to change much of what state legislators passed earlier this year. Many measures are in limbo, especially the state’s budget. The legislature will reconvene on April 22 to consider budget changes and vetoes that Gov. Ralph Northam may propose.

This week, Governor Northam announced that he is putting all new spending in the state’s new two-year budget on hold. Therefore, it appears that when we reconvene, we will consider proposed amendments to implement his proposals, pending economic analyses, projections and decisions on how the state can use the $3 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

While Virginia has the largest cash reserve in the state’s history -- $2 billion – it is increasingly apparent that what lies ahead is the country’s greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Unlike the federal government, the state legislature is required by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget. If revenues decline, we must raise taxes or make cuts.

While the details are not yet public, when we reconvene, we will likely be faced with cancelling raises for teachers, state employees, the Virginia State Police and local law enforcement. Increases in K-12 funding will probably be significantly reduced. Our historic investments in early childhood education and the second year of college tuition freezes will likely be eliminated.

The budget we passed in March increased Medicaid reimbursement rates for the first time in a long time – they are probably gone.

It is unclear if the modest gas tax increase will be reversed, but it could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new transportation and transit investments.

There is no question that with everyone at home, regardless of what the gas tax rate is, revenues from gas and vehicle sales taxes will plummet for much of this year and inhibit transportation infrastructure investments.

Several local initiatives that I promoted are at risk: $25 million to fund the infrastructure to end Alexandria’s raw sewage discharges, the largest clean water investments in state history; a $4 million grant for the new U.S. Army Museum at Fort Belvoir; and new funds to restore staffing cuts at Mason Neck State Park. The opening of the Prince William County Public Defender’s Office could be put on hold. Unprecedented investments in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund are threatened.

On Sunday, April 12, the Governor is scheduled to announce his amendments and vetoes. He has signed many bills, but he has not acted on hundreds. In addition, because the budget trumps legislation, some bills that the Governor has already signed could be delayed or defunded by the budget. This is a truly unprecedented situation.

I am hopeful that the minimum wage increase bill will not be weakened. The new $9.50 minimum wage is not scheduled to take effect until January 1, 2021, and is truly a modest increase. We also passed legislation to give counties the same taxing authority as cities. I had mixed views on the bill given that we did not give counties other new responsibilities or equalize other responsibilities such as sovereign immunity and I ultimately voted in favor of it, but I would not be surprised if that legislation is placed on hold.

Finally, as the COVID-19 crisis persists, I am increasingly concerned that many employees in the 36th District may be at increased risk as they do not hold jobs in which they can telecommute and are not given personal protective equipment (PPE). Fairfax County Health Department and Virginia Health Department data are not differentiated so we cannot determine exactly what groups of people, zip codes, or age brackets are being hit the hardest with infections and death. I have asked the Governor’s office for more refined data so we can more finely tune our policy responses.

Please check my Twitter and Facebook feeds for more information or sign up for my emails. If you have any feedback, please send me a note at scott@scottsurovell.org.