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Virginia Lawmakers’ Budget Proposals Include State Worker Pay Raises, Fund Mental Health Initiatives

women sitting in chairs dressed in red hold up signs
Supporters of the Red4Ed movement made an appearance at Sunday's budget meetings, calling for higher spending on K-12 education. (Photo by Craig Carper/VPM)

The House and Senate money committees unveiled their competing $135 billion state budgets on Sunday.

Both chambers are now controlled by Democrats and they both funded long standing Democratic priorities. There are added funds for the community college system and Historically Black Colleges and Universities; money to supplement the expected increase in the minimum wage; over a billion dollars in new K-12 spending and increased funding for affordable housing and homelessness prevention initiatives.

The budgets also contrast in certain areas. The House proposal calls for a 1% bonus this year and a 2% raise next year while the Senate is asking for a 3% bonus this year and a 3% raise next year — it’s also offering a decompression increase which would give state employees with at least 5 years of service $75 for every year, capped at 30 years or $2,250.

For State Troopers, the Senate did something unique and increased vehicle registration fees by $4 to provide for a pay raise. The pay raise comes amid concerns about hiring and retention - State Troopers currently have a 20 percent vacancy rate.

The House also proposed funding to hire more General District court clerks and public defenders — and to open a new state public defender's office. The Senate offers funds to support pay raises for General District court clerks.

The House and Senate budgets include funds to supplement the newly proposed state minimum wage,  which will be higher than the federal minimum wage, the figure Virginia has used since it was introduced in 1938. It also has over a billion dollars in new K-12 spending.

For teachers, the House offered the state’s share of a 2% pay increase for both years — while the Senate offered a one-time pay bonus for the first year and a 4% increase for the second year. That fell far short of what teachers were asking for. They wanted to bring teacher salaries to the national average. Right now they’re about $8,500 behind.

Emma Clark is a 5th year teacher at Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield. And she was unhappy with the proposal.

“Really anything short of teacher pay at the national average, a living wage for support staff, school facilities that aren’t a health hazard to our kids and staffing that meets constitutional bare minimums,” Clark said. “Anything short of that, to us, is an utter failure on the part of our government.”

Clark had advocated for various tax increases that could address these issues. Sen. Janet Howell (D-Northern Fairfax County), the chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee, said the majority of lawmakers weren’t prepared to take the steps necessary to bridge that gap.

“Well, when people are prepared to vote for higher taxes we’ll be in a better position — right now, the votes aren’t there,” Howell said.

Education activists also rallied at the General Assembly on Sunday to call attention to the need for adequate school funding.

Chris Duncombe, a policy analyst with the progressive think-tank Commonwealth Institute, said while both the House and Senate budget proposals included funding for teacher pay raises and increased staffing of school counselors, they fall short of meeting standards set by the state Department of Education —  a ratio of one counselor to 250 students. He also said the proposed budgets lack funds to hire necessary support staff in schools or create a school equity fund.

“Right now, Virginia spends less per student in our highest poverty school divisions than in our wealthiest ones,” Duncombe said. This is backward, and from what research shows can have the biggest impact for improving outcomes for students.”

There’s increased funding in the Senate for community-based treatment for mental health, like additional beds at state mental-health hospitals, and new money for programs to incentivize private hospitals to offer-up bedspace to help address that shortage. There’s also additional funding to support permanent supportive housing to serve an estimated 2,000 people with mental illness.

 Last week, Governor Northam announced an extra $200 million dollars in new money for lawmakers to work with this year. But it’s still unclear how they’ll use that money. 

Over the next few weeks, both chambers will work to finalize their budgets into one plan before the legislative session ends on March 7th.