How Much Have We Lost?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Weekly Column: Special Session Begins Work on State Budget

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of April 2, 2014.
Special Session Begins Work on State Budget
Last week, we returned to Richmond for the first day of our special session to finalize Virginia’s two-year, $90 billion budget.
Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed amendments to the budget originally introduced. The major change was for Virginia to expand its Medicaid program to all adults earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level with the cost reimbursed by the federal government for the next three years and phased down to 90 percent of the cost by the year 2020 pursuant to the Federal Affordable Care Act.
Shifting this cost to the federal government frees up at least $225 million of Virginia taxpayer money to fund other programs this budget cycle. Governor McAuliffe proposes to use those savings to provide $100 million for a “rainy day fund” to cover potential future Medicaid expenditures as requested by Republican Senators. He also budgets $76 million to shore up the Virginia Retirement System because the General Assembly borrowed money to balance the budget back in 2010-2011.

Most importantly, he proposes a two percent salary increase for all K-12 public school teachers and support personnel, state employees, college and university faculty, constitutional officer personnel (sheriffs and clerks) and state-supported local employees. With Fairfax County’s teacher salaries lagging behind Arlington, Alexandria, Washington, D.C. and Maryland by thousands of dollars, this would be a sorely-needed boost and an especially effective way to retain and attract good teachers.
He also proposed new funding for pre-kindergarten education, covering costs shifted to local governments; mental health programs and land conservation. Overall, Fairfax County would receive at least an additional $36 million over two years instead of $28 million.
The Republican majority in the House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee killed Governor McAuliffe’s proposals about three hours after they received them and voted to send their original budget to the full House. In response, the Senate adjourned on Monday night for three weeks so they could give it more careful consideration.
On Tuesday night, we debated the budget again. Governor McAuliffe’s budget was reintroduced on the House floor and rejected on a party-line vote with one Republican voting for it and two Democrats voting against it.  We passed the House’s budget on a party-line vote and adjourned for the time being and its now on to the Senate.
We did get one thing done. We passed legislation wrapping up last year’s budget and passing along $440 million of excess revenue to the next budget cycle. I voted “no” because it also funded a new $400 million Capitol office building for the General Assembly. Our current building is an asbestos-laden, energy inefficient, allergy-inducing fire hazard, but I could not tolerate the irony of spending $400 million on ourselves at the same time we are refusing to extend healthcare to Virginia’s 400,000 neediest citizens at minimal cost to taxpayers.
The Senate will return on April 7 to hold hearings on the budget. The House is not scheduled to return at this time.
Last week, I wrote about many of the consequences of inaction. More analysis provides more consequences. As of today, Virginia taxpayers have lost over $450 million due to the legislature’s gridlock. One study estimates that failure to act will lead to 200 to 600 preventable deaths per year. Another report estimates $28 million in savings to local governments via medical services provided by their community services boards such as Fairfax County’s. 
Some opponents argue that the federal government could prohibit Virginia from withdrawing after changing reimbursements. After Governor McAuliffe produced a letter from the federal government stating that Virginia could withdraw at any time, opponents moved the goalposts, contending that that was not good enough and demanded a new federal law.
The state now has spending authority through June 30, 2014. It is unclear what will happen if a budget is not approved. The state would clearly not close its jails, stop processing criminal cases or shut down university hospitals, but there would be consequences.
I will continue to work with my colleagues to find a bipartisan solution to our stalemate, but that path is not clear today.
As always, if you have any ideas, drop me a note at scottsurovell@gmail.com. It is an honor to serve you in the state legislature.

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