RICHMOND, Va (WRIC)- Despite calls from protesters to ‘defund the police,’ some leading Virginia Democrats are backing bonuses for officers in the special session.
The House and Senate recently introduced revised budget plans—changes triggered after the coronavirus pandemic took a big hit on Virginia’s economy and revenue collections. Lawmakers are trying to make up for a shortfall of more than $2.7 billion expected over two years.
Current and anticipated losses previously led the General Assembly to withdraw state-funded salary increases for various professions, including state police. While the plans on the table now don’t restore those commitments to pre-pandemic levels, one Senate proposal would provide $500 bonuses for some law enforcement officers.
Costing more than $18 million, the amendment from Senate Judiciary Committee Chair John Edwards (D-Roanoke) would deliver the one-time boost to state and local police later this year.
“No, we don’t need to take money from law enforcement,” Edwards said. “We want to make sure that police understand we appreciate them. We need the police. Without the police what would we do?”
Senate Finance Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-Reston) made similar comments about the proposal when it was introduced last Friday.
Virginia State Police Association Executive Director Wayne Huggins said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see the proposed bonuses.
“In the wake of all the anti-law enforcement rhetoric, it makes a statement and I think in many respects the statement is more valuable than the actual bonus itself,” Huggins said.
The House’s budget takes a different approach that’s contingent upon an improved financial outlook in the commonwealth. If that happens, the plan would offer a $1,500 bonus to all state employees and a 1.5 percent bonus to state-supported local employees in FY2022.
“Neither approach defunds the police or the state police in particular,” Huggins said.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Torian (D-Prince William) was not available for an interview on Monday and his office couldn’t immediately address his opinion on the Senate proposal. The two bodies will have to work out their differences before the budget can be finalized.
Some demonstrators who called for reduced law enforcement funding earlier this year said they wanted to see those dollars reinvested in other areas to improve public safety. Despite budget restraints, the plans crafted by lawmakers commit new spending for various police reforms, including improving resources for mental health crisis calls, standardizing officer training and expanding the use of body cameras.
The House has already killed a handful of amendments from Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas)that had law enforcement on edge. The amendments would’ve reduced a source of funding for state and local police departments by 10 percent in FY2021 and another 25 percent in FY2022.
Huggins said–if passed–the amendments would’ve wiped out tens of millions in funding, making it more difficult for departments to implement various police reforms with a price tag.
“Those were enormous and would’ve done irreparable harm to local law enforcement and to the state police,” Huggins said.
Carter didn’t return multiple interview requests on Monday.
The House also scrapped Senate language that would’ve tied the fate of the same funding source to various reforms. The proposals limited HB599 funding for departments that failed to obtain accreditation or meet expanded data reporting requirements.
Huggins said connecting these items could be counter-productive, potentially causing smaller departments already strapped for resources to lose more money.
Edwards said the Senate could save those sections later on in the legislative process. “The Senate believes this is one way to make sure the police are properly trained,” Edwards said.
Update: On Tuesday, House Republicans announced a number of amendments to the proposed budget, including one to restore HB599 funding. This additional funding was originally passed in the 2020 regular session based upon expected growth in revenues but was subsequently unallocated–along with other new spending—due to losses from the pandemic. After Democrats rejected that proposal, House Republicans tweeted the following: