Opinion: Commentary: Legislators Revised the Budget to Address Many Needs

Opinion: Commentary: Legislators Revised the Budget to Address Many Needs

Land conservation funds could potentially be used to help purchase and preserve River Farm.

Part 3 of a series.

The General Assembly met over the last few months in a special session to finalize our state budget. We had to revisit the budget because in the last week of our regular, winter session, the COVID-19 pandemic started to flare up, the shutdown began shortly after and the economic damage and uncertainty made it impossible to build a two-year budget. Gov. Ralph Northam proposed amendments that the General Assembly approved in April putting all new spending on hold until we had reliable revenue estimates. Two weeks ago, we approved a revised budget that takes a more modest approach than our original budget, but it still has some significant investments.

First, we balanced our budget as required by the state constitution.

Second, the budget leaves over $1 billion unspent in reserves because of continued economic uncertainty. It is a very fiscally prudent budget.

Confronting COVID-19 and More

The budget allocates over $300 million in new dollars to K-12 education to help with COVID-19 related expenses, like short-term technology needs, and it provides new flexibility to spend funds on virtual education. We are investing $37.3 million to expand early childhood education for three and four year-olds and $35 million for at-risk youngsters. Expanding preschool pays long-term dividends because giving children a strong start early is important to their lifetime success. We also provided $94 million in new funding for colleges and universities, including an additional $7 million for George Mason University.

We funded dental benefits for Medicaid recipients for the first time and increased funding for mental health, Medicaid personal care attendants and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). We included major mental health investments including nearly $100 million for community mental health services, safe discharge practices and supportive housing for Virginians with mental illnesses.

The budget includes $105 million for rental relief from CARES Act funds. We also are making an $85 million deposit to the Housing Trust Fund, the largest ever, to help with affordable housing. We put into law a utility disconnection moratorium until 60 days after the end of our state of emergency and are requiring Dominion Energy to forgive $127 million of customer utility debt by crediting it against company over charges. The budget also provides $100 million from CARES Act funds for utility assistance for Virginians who are in arrears.

The pandemic has truly highlighted our broadband shortcomings and we appropriated $85 million for new broadband infrastructure, plus $30 million short-term broadband projects.

We provided the Commonwealth Transportation Board flexibility to reprogram up to $1.1 billion from existing projects and authorized temporarily shifting mass transit capital funds to ridership incentives. We authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to extend the validity of drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations for up to 90 days after the end of the state of emergency and authorized DMV customers over age 75 to obtain legally allowable services either electronically or through the mail.

We also are providing $300,000 for additional staff at Mason Neck State Park, new funds for water quality improvement grants, and $11 million for land conservation investments. The land conservation funds could potentially be used to help purchase and preserve River Farm, which, its owners have announced, will be sold.

The criminal justice reforms that I reported on last week require an additional $22.8 million in implementation funds. We also allocated $14 million to a new body camera fund that will provide one-time grants to law enforcement agencies that have not purchased these cameras yet.

The budget provides funding for a new General District Court judgeship in Fairfax County that was authorized two years ago and 120 new and desperately needed deputy clerks across the state. The budget also funds 59 new public defender positions.

We also funded a $1,500 one-time bonus to all state employees and a $500 bonus to state-responsible law enforcement such as our Virginia State Police.

Virginia is in better shape than many other states. We accomplished all of this without tapping our Reserve or “Rainy Day” Fund which could very well be needed in the future.

Please share your views with me at scott@scottsurovell.org.