House Budget Addresses Some Democratic Concerns, but Still Diverts Money from Schools to Roads
A Richmond Report from our local delegate.
In the midst of the ongoing debate about Republican attempts to play doctor and interfere with women’s private medical decisions, the House of Delegates last week debated and voted on the budget.
When Governor McDonnell introduced his budget in December, Democrats identified three major problems with it. First, a larger portion of the sales tax was diverted from the General Fund—which pays for K-12 education, higher ed, public safety, and community assistance needs for the disabled—to transportation. Over the course of several years, the percentage would rise from its current rate of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent, which translates from almost $50 million in the first year to over $320 million by year six. Second, there were substantial cuts to human services that would have eliminated the health care safety net, with funds nearly or completely cut from the Virginia Health Care Foundation, statewide free clinics, rural dental health centers, teen pregnancy clinics, and many other similar programs. Third, education funding was not prioritized. There was little, if any, new money for schools, with the lion’s share resulting from re-benchmarking the statewide funding formula. Just $6 million was directed to new programs, while about $400 million advertised as “new education money” was actually a mandate on local governments to pay a higher rate into the state’s retirement program for teachers. Additionally, the budget eliminated “cost-of-competing” money Northern Virginia localities need to account for our higher cost of living.
Fellow House Democrats and I pressed these issues hard, and when the House released its version of the budget, it addressed some of our concerns. Nearly all of the safety-net funding was restored, $136 million in additional school funding was included, and $24 million in cost-of-competing funds (out of $65 million) was restored. Other positive changes included:
- Funding for Alicia’s Law – a court fee paid by criminal defendants that supports police units targeting violent sex crimes against children – was completely redirected back to its intended use
- State employees were not required to pay 1 percent of their net pay into the Virginia Retirement System
- A 2 percent conditional pay raise for state employees and college faculty was included, beginning in the summer of 2013
- 200 additional slots to provide community-based services for the intellectually disabled, bringing the total additional to 450, plus 50 new waiver slots for the developmentally disabled
- Funding was included for community centers for the disabled
- No language defunding Planned Parenthood, as has been introduced in prior years, was included
Despite these successes, the House version of the budget still included many problems. The sales tax diversion remained, which will likely be the main sticking point before a final budget is passed. There was no mechanism for offering public school teachers a pay raise, which they have not received in four years. Medicaid payment rates were not satisfactorily adjusted for inflation. Tens of millions of dollars in cost-of-competing funds were not restored. Language prohibiting state funding of embryonic stem-cell research was included, as was funding for various other divisive social-issues.
In an effort to continue addressing our concerns, House Democrats attempted several amendments during floor debate on thre budget. We sought 575 additional waivers for commnity-based services for the disabled. We tried to restore funds for child advocacy centersm, which serve abused children in crisis. We tried to boost the meager pay for personal home care and respite care workers that are essential to enabling families to cope with caring for severaly disabled children. We attempted to fund research for into treating sickle-cell anemia, andf we fought for an industrial machinery and tools grant progrtam to promote economic growth. Unfortunately, the Republican majority defeated all of these efforts.
While we still await the Senate’s action on a budget, the House budget passed late last week over my dissenting vote. The House budget is a marked improvement over what Governor McDonnell proposed, but I cannot support a budget that diverts hundreds of millions of dollars from education, health care, public safety, and other core services to pave roads.