General Assembly behind schedule on final budget
Nearly 600 bills passed both chambers in spite of the divided government, but landmark legislation was lacking.
The General Assembly adjourned Friday without a budget to consider. It means for the second session in a row lawmakers will not finish a budget by its scheduled end Saturday, underlining the difficulties of a divided legislature.
The assembly’s rules required that a compromise budget be completed on Thursday at the latest. That would have given legislators 48 hours to consider the massive document before their scheduled final adjournment on Saturday.
While there are no official rules on how to handle a delay, after the Senate and House didn’t agree on a budget last year within their scheduled session, legislators passed a compromise in June during a special session. The months of negotiations between representatives of the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Delegates happened behind closed doors.
State government is still operating under its current two-year budget, so the stakes are lower this year without the prospect of a government shutdown. But with all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for election and what could be a contentious primary season, lawmakers are eager to show their constituents progress.
Taxes are the main difference between the two budgets, with budget amendments from Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the House adding $1 billion in tax cuts. The bills to cut those taxes, passed by the Republican-controlled House, did not pass the Senate.
The Senate’s budget, shaped by the Democrats in the majority there, allocates slightly less than the amount Republicans did to tax cuts and spends it on education funding.
The $1 billion difference appears smaller when looking at some of the line items and partisan preferences. On some issues, like $200 million for the Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund and $8.6 million for Department of Corrections positions, Senate Democrats agreed with Youngkin while the House did not.
Both the Senate and House budget amendments agreed in a way that diverged from those proposed by Youngkin: giving teachers and state employees a 2% raise instead of bonuses.
Other times, it’s both a matter of how the money flows to address issues and how much money does, like on economic development sites.
“The House is seeing it as a way to make one-time payments or one-time investments,” said Megan Davis of the Commonwealth Institute. “The Senate is still doing that just with slightly smaller dollar amounts.”
The lack of a budget compromise during the scheduled legislative session points to a lack of cooperation generally according to Steven Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
“When I look at cooperation or the lack thereof in the legislature, I'm inclined to focus on the central questions of what lawmakers do with taxpayer money,” Farnsworth said.
While legislators passed nearly 600 bills this session so far, the passage of landmark legislation was mostly lacking. As of Friday evening conference, committees still had yet to compromise on 56 bills. The divided legislature did come together to pass bills on behavioral health, education, and workforce issues.
“The idea that you will update outdated regulations for training for individual professions … it's good they don't argue about it. But I don't know that there's the same priority that one might attach to hair salons as highways or mass transit,” Farnsworth said.
At the halfway point this year, the Virginia Public Access Project said that 97% of “close” floor votes were along or nearly along party lines. VPAP defined closed votes as those with at least a third of the body voting in opposition.
Sen. Barbara Favola (D–Arlington) said in an interview that bipartisan cooperation is more common than people think, outside of some of the “cultural war” items, referencing guns and abortion as examples.
“Other issues, there was a lot more agreement,” she said. “Oftentimes, there's disagreement on how you get to a place. There's agreement on the overall problem, but there's a philosophical difference on how you might get there. The big divide now is the tax-and-spend issues.”
Favola and Del. Carrie Coyner (R–Chesterfield) cooperated on behavioral health bills. One would allow peer recovery specialists to have had drug offenses, and another created a fund for addiction recovery services for people in jails.
“I bring to the table what I know about the topic, [and] have done my own research. They bring theirs, and then we work with different advocacy groups who have knowledge and then work to put together the best bill,” Coyner said.
At a press appearance last week, Youngkin said he wasn’t in a hurry to get a budget by the end of the regularly scheduled session: “I’m here all summer.”
The General Assembly will meet Saturday, Feb. 25, but has not officially scheduled additional days beyond that.