Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Weekly Column: Schools, Medicaid at Issue in the State Budget

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, The Mt. Vernon Voice and Patch in the week of February 24, 2014.
Schools, Medicaid at Issue in the State Budget

Last week, the initial skirmish over the state budget erupted in the Virginia legislature.

The proposed House and Senate budgets are significantly different in how they address elementary-secondary education.  Virginia provides about 23% of Fairfax County’s public school funding. The federal government pays about 5% and the remainder comes from Fairfax County, which is largely funded by real estate taxes.  The only Northern Virginia County with lower real estate taxes is Arlington County.

Aside from Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland, most members of the County Board of Supervisors appear to be unwilling to raise taxes of any kind to come close to our neighboring jurisdictions and meet the Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) request for an increase of $98 million. Therefore, the state’s contribution is critical to enable FCPS pay teachers and staff competitive salaries.

In the FY14 state budget, Virginia sent $584.1 million to Fairfax County for schools. Former Governor Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget would have provided $602.7 and $612.6 million to Fairfax County in FY15-16 or a net increase of $47.1 million. The House of Delegates’ proposed budget parrots McDonnell’s funding, but the Senate budget proposes to increase Fairfax County’s funds in FY15-FY16 by $9 million more. This would cover about 33% of FCPS’s 2015 budget request to the Board of Supervisors.

Both budgets fail to restore funding for “Cost-to-Compete” allocations. In the mid-1990s, a study determined that Northern Virginia’s labor costs should be accounted for in budgeting because they are substantially higher than in the rest of Virginia and out of local governments’ control.  This funding was cut during the recession and today it is still $70 million behind formula guidelines. Last week, I introduced a floor amendment to restore $7 million, but it was rejected on a party-line vote. 

Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income and disabled people, is also a major controversy.  The 44th District has the second largest Medicaid population in all of Northern Virginia. Over 9,000 children or one in three kids in the 44th district receives health care covered by Medicaid. Each of those 9,000 kids has a parent without health insurance. 

The Senate budget contains a proposal to extend a private insurance approach to Medicaid for low-income families at 138% of the federal poverty level ($32,499 for a family of four). The House budget does not. The federal government will pay 100% of the cost of this expansion in the first years and 90% in the out years. 

Providing health insurance to more people will save taxpayer dollars largely by covering uninsured medical expenses, such as uncompensated emergency room visits that we all pay for through our insurance.  Expanding Medicaid can reduce public funding for free clinics and help keep people healthy.  Broadening Medicaid coverage is projected to create about 30,000 jobs which will bring revenues to the state.

Because the House budget fails to expand Medicaid and accept $2 billion per year in federal monies, the House budget was forced to cut law enforcement, school resource officers, jail funding, foster care, home care for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults and other safety net programs to make up the difference.   

The House budget also funds a new General Assembly Office Building at a cost of $300 million ($400 million including interest).  Additionally, legislators continue to have the option of a full state-sponsored health insurance plan with our $17,600 annual salary.  (I do not accept state health insurance. Luckily, I have the option of two other plans through my and my wife’s employment.)

Only one of my Republican colleagues voted to expand Medicaid coverage. I am very concerned that both sides are hunkering down for a protracted conflict, but I also feel it is the height of hypocrisy for the General Assembly to fund a new office building for ourselves and keep our own state health insurance in the same budget in which we deny health insurance coverage to 400,000 low-income and disabled Virginians at minimal cost.

I voted “no” on this budget and will continue to craft a better budget.

It is an honor to serve as your state delegate. Please share your views with me at scottsurovell@gmail.com or 804-698-1044.

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