Opinion: Commentary: Reforecasted Budget Progressing

Opinion: Commentary: Reforecasted Budget Progressing

The General Assembly is meeting virtually this week and next week in a special session necessary to revise the budget due to the pandemic and the need to implement election law changes in time to take effect prior to the November general election. Last week, I participated in the Joint Money Committees meeting (House Appropriations and House and Senate Finance) where we received the official budget reforecasting data and Governor Northam’s budget recommendations which was necessary because the Virginia Code mandates a revenue reforecast when the forecast is missed by 1% or more.

Back in April during the reconvene session, there were estimates that during the 2020 fiscal year we would see a shortfall in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Due to this projection, at the April reconvene session, we adopted the “unallotment” of $874.6 million in FY 2021 and $1.38 billion in FY 2022. However, now that we have fully analyzed data from this time period, revenues only fell $234.2 million below the original projected amounts. While less than expected, this amount still shows 2% growth from our previous fiscal year. Because of this Governor Northam’s budgetary proposals were scaled down in order to absorb the impact from the coronavirus pandemic, and while cuts on current spending were avoided, much spending approved in our original budget we passed in March will not be reinstated.

After receiving the reforecasting data, $99.6 million in spending has been proposed for restoration in FY 2021 and $44.9 million in FY 2022. Much of this restoration was provided for one-time and urgent spending initiatives like increased money to the Housing Trust Fund, broadband deployment, and dam rehabilitation projects.

In addition to budgetary adjustments, Virginia has also received $3.1 billion in federal Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars. Coronavirus Relief Fund money can only be used to cover expenses related to the COVID-19 response, and must be spent prior to Dec. 30th, 2020. As I mentioned earlier this year, there is a possibility that federal legislation will allow for more flexibility on the use of these funds, and an extended timeline, but Congress has yet to act on this and so this cannot be guaranteed. These funds have not been appropriated within the budget, instead, they have been allocated administratively. Currently, $1.3 billion of this funding remains uncommitted. Types of expenditures that might be eligible could include testing, PPE, and health worker hazard pay to name a few.

Priorities in the newly proposed budget revision reflect the effects COVID-19 has had on the Commonwealth, providing funding for combatting the health crisis, helping Virginians facing housing and food insecurity, increasing child care programs, and expanding voting access, among other initiatives. $55 million in FY21 and $30 million in FY22 have been proposed for funding the Housing Trust Fund. The Housing Trust Fund supports loans for projects to expand Virginia’s affordable rental housing, and funds efforts to reduce homelessness. The budget also includes language to extend the eviction moratorium through April 30, 2021, and provides a process for landlords and tenants to enter into a COVID-19 housing payment plan. Language is also included to prohibit utilities like electric, gas, and water providers from disconnecting services for nonpayment of fees until 60 days after the public health state of emergency ends.

$85 million across the biennium has been set aside for improving broadband infrastructure across the Commonwealth, which has become an even more important initiative during this pandemic, as we have moved to online work and learning.

As I noted last week, Governor Northam provided for funding for prepaid postage for mail-in absentee ballots in this reforecasted budget, which fulfills my bill which passed this year, HB 220, as well as adds absentee ballot return drop boxes. The pandemic has shown more acutely the necessity of expanding voting options and providing accessibility for absentee ballots. Voters should not have to choose between their health and the health of their loved ones and exercising their right to vote. Secure drop boxes for absentee ballots are already common throughout the country, and will provide yet another safe, secure, and accessible method of returning ballots for voters. Due to the pandemic and delays that may be experienced through USPS, allowing voters an option to bypass mailing ballots is a necessary addition to ensure each vote is counted, and to maintain election integrity.

I introduced three budget amendments to the revised budget, requesting partial restoration of unalloted spending, and utilization of CARES Act funding for one-time expenses. One requests $882,500 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act to enable the Virginia Mental Health Access Program to respond to the children’s mental health crisis being experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another is a language amendment granting the DMV the authority to administer driver education programs and testing online during a state of emergency. The last one partially restores funding ($500,000) for Pre- and Post-Incarceration Services (PAPIS) for individuals nearing or newly released from incarceration, aiming to improve outcomes for individuals and reduce recidivism rates.