By Senator Lynwood Lewis
The pace here at the General Assembly continues to be a fast one. With adjournment less than two weeks away we need to act on bills and the focus on the budget becomes intense. I wanted to address in this column the budget process and how it works, particularly in regard to an amendment which was proposed on the floor of the Senate during the final vote on the Senate’s version of our two-year, $130 billion plan.
Virginia’s budget is developed by the members of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee and their respective staffs based upon the Governor’s submitted budget. These committees work independently of each other from the beginning of the General Assembly Session, when the Governor submits his budget, through the end, when the final version of the Commonwealth’s two-year spending plan is hashed out by a group of senior legislators who are members of both the Senate Finance and Appropriations and the House Appropriations Committees. Unless you are a member of either the House Appropriations Committee or the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee your impact on the budget-writing process is somewhat limited. Even within those Committees, legislators are members of smaller subcommittees and oftentimes have little insight or information as to what the other subcommittees are developing. Progress on the budget is kept relatively secret with little information slipping out about the form each Chamber’s budget is taking. Legislators who are not members of Senate Finance saw the budget amendments for the first time on their desks in the Chamber at noon on Monday, February 17, with a vote scheduled for Tuesday, February 18. What we are provided with is not the full budget, but rather the amendments to the Governor’s introduced budget. This year the document of budget amendments was two hundred and fifty-three pages long. It was the product of several weeks of work not only by legislators on the Finance Committee, but also by a team of long-serving nonpartisan budget analysts who have a great deal of input in constructing the budget because of their institutional knowledge, as well as their sophisticated understanding of the budget process. Virginia’s budget, by our State Constitution, must balance.
On Tuesday, February 18, after concluding our regular legislative business, we took up the budget. Only a few amendments were introduced to the budget, and all but one were eventually withdrawn by their patrons. One Senator introduced an $18 million amendment to give sheriffs and deputies a three percent pay raise. The Governor’s introduced budget had included no funding for pay raises, while the Senate amendments to the Governor’s budget included a minor one-time bonus for the first year and a 3% pay increase for the second year. The second-year, 3% pay raise in the Senate’s budget amendments was contingent upon available revenues, as were similar raises for other state employees. The House included a 1% bonus for the first year of the budget, plus a 1% raise and then a 2% raise in the budget’s second year. Nobody ever seriously introduces a floor amendment to the State’s balanced two-year budget with an $18 million price tag and with no proposed offsetting reductions or cuts elsewhere in the budget. It was pure political showmanship and irresponsible. You cannot throw the budget out of balance on the last day we have to pass a Senate version of the budget. The sponsor of the amendment was asked by another sympathetic Senator how he proposed to pay for the eighteen million dollars out of a budget that was already balanced. He was unable to provide an answer. Because Virginia’s Constitution requires a balanced budget, and because this Senator proposed no amendments to cut elsewhere in the budget to fund the $18 million amendment, his amendment was out of order and should have been ruled so by the President of the Senate, but no one raised the objection. Without funding the amendment was rejected with a bipartisan vote. You can imagine that many of us, myself included, would have liked to see amendments for increased pay for sheriffs and deputies and also for public school teachers. Old Dominion University, my constituent, received a cut of $6 million from its base operating funding and I certainly would have liked to have been able to remedy that by some magic on the floor of the Senate. But that is simply not the way the budget system works.
The construction of Virginia’s budget is a process. The adoption by the House and the Senate of their two different versions of the budget are but steps in that process. The important final stretch of work now begins as half dozen senior legislators form the House and a half dozen from the Senate will begin to meet regularly and extensively over the next couple of weeks right up until we adjourn on March the 7th to try and iron out the differences between the two versions of Virginia’s budget. I will advocate with the conferees for funding of salary increases for our Sheriffs and deputies, as well as our teachers and for ODU. As in the past, there will likely be significant differences between both proposed budgets and the final version.
We will be in Session until Saturday March 7. As always I encourage people to contact us on any issues of concern our email remains email@example.com and our phone number while in Richmond is (804) 698-7506. And as always we encourage everyone to visit if at all possible and to use our office to facilitate your time here in your Capitol.