Saturday, September 23, 2023

Virginia lawmakers pass new budget amid downturn fears

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers approved a new state budget Thursday that includes heavy new spending on public education, social services and other areas, despite protests from some Republicans that the legislature should wait to see what impact the deepening coronavirus crisis will have on the state’s economy.

Legislators approved a two-year state spending plan that includes raises for teachers and state employees and funds for a one-year tuition freeze at public universities. The measure now heads to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who can try to amend or veto parts of the budget.

The budget was supposed to be approved this weekend but lawmakers had to extend this year’s legislative session a few days to get all of the work done. In that time, the spreading coronavirus has panicked global financial markets and raised concerns about both the short-term and long-term health of the state’s economy.

There’s also been a cascade of cancellations and shutdowns around the globe and in Virginia, where several universities have suspended classes.

Republicans said lawmakers should take a few more days to reexamine their revenue assumptions and spending plans in the budget.

“I was very comfortable with it when I left here on Sunday but the world has changed,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment.

But the budget easily passed, and Democrats said their recent efforts to pad the state’s reserve funds will help the state weather the storm. Democratic Sen. Janet Howell, who leads the Senate Finance Committee, said it would send an “upsetting” message if the state delayed passage of the budget.

“I don’t think that there is any need for us to act precipitously, I think we’re in a good condition for the near future,” Howell said.

The short-term effects of the coronavirus on the state’s economy are not clear. But a prolonged economic downturn and slide in stocks could severely stretch both state and local governments, and force officials to confront painful options like slashing services or raising taxes. Budget writers would have less tax revenue to spend while potentially having to make up higher contribution levels for the state’s pension plan.

This was the first year that Democrats had full control of the budget process in more than two decades. Until recently, this year’s budget process also has been made easier by higher-than-expected tax revenues.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said the budget delivers “the important legislative promises demanded by voters” with increased spending on public education and health care.

Some highlights include:

-Funding for the state’s share of 2% raises for public school teachers for the next two fiscal years, while many state employees would receive a 3% bonus this year and a 3% raise next year.

-Funding to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition at public universities.

-Extra funding to hire more public school counselors.

-Funding to provide dental coverage for adults on Medicaid.

-Funding to increase benefits for low-income individuals receiving temporary cash assistance.

-$25 million in bonds to build a new tunnel between the state Capitol and a nearby legislative office building currently under construction.

Lawmakers are set to return to Richmond on April 22 to take up the governor’s proposed amendments and vetoes to the budget and other legislation.

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