RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After months of closed-door negotiations, the General Assembly passed a two-year budget with broad bipartisan support.
The spending plan strikes a balance between proposals crafted by House Republicans and Senate Democrats.
“These amendments represent true compromise,” Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) said during a floor speech on Wednesday.
The plan now heads to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who can either sign the bill or amend it.
“I’m pleased that conferees were able to come together and I think accommodate an awful lot. We still have work to do but my early review is I’m pleased with the framework,” Youngkin said during a press conference on Tuesday.
The plan includes many, but not all of the tax cuts that Gov. Youngkin has pushed for. Negotiators left out Youngkin’s proposed gas tax holiday but agreed to get rid of the state portion of the grocery tax, give one-time rebates to eligible taxpayers, increase the standard deduction, provide a refundable earned income tax credit and cut taxes on veteran retirement pay.
“It’s probably one of the largest decreases in taxes we’ve seen in many years so I’m very pleased overall,” Senator Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg) said. “I really wish we had included something for the gas tax. That’s really hurting working Virginians.”
While negotiators insist the budget deal is fiscally responsible and maintains structural balance, some lawmakers have concerns.
“A lot of us are worried about what those tax cuts mean when the economy isn’t as rosy as it is right now,” Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said. “We might be locking ourselves into a situation where we either have to raise taxes in a recession or make some really horrible cuts we otherwise wouldn’t have to make.”
The budget also makes significant new investments in education, mental health services and compensation for state employees. In general, the budget gives them a 10% raise over two years in addition to a $1,000 bonus in December. There are also larger, targeted raises for certain public safety and behavioral health workers.
“We have record growth in state revenues. That certainly has enabled us to address some long-sought investments in core government services,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) said.
Wednesday’s vote was a rare moment of unity in a divided state government but it didn’t come without pushback.
Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) said the plan fell short on gun violence prevention.
“How many people have to die before we take this seriously,” Price said.
Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) said, while the compromise has significant funding for affordable housing, it allocates less than former Gov. Ralph Northam initially proposed.
“We could’ve done better, we should’ve done better and that’s why I’m disappointed,” Lopez said.
Others complained about a lack of transparency and criticized budget negotiators for sneaking controversial policy decisions into a must-pass spending plan.
“I haven’t seen this much of a lack of transparency in the process since I’ve been here,” Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond) said.
Among the most contentious last-minute additions was a new misdemeanor penalty for public possession of more than four ounces of marijuana. The budget also seeks to tighten safety regulations for certain hemp products containing THC.
Senator Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William) said it’s meant to be a temporary fix after several bills on these topics failed earlier this year.
“It’s my hope that next year we can start to really tackle that issue across the aisle and find some long-term resolution,” McPike said.
A bill paving the way for the possible use of taxpayer dollars to convince the Washington Commanders football team to relocate their stadium to Virginia notably didn’t get a vote on Wednesday. Supporters argue the investment will pay off in the long-term. However, the team has been embroiled in controversy and some lawmakers are losing faith in the project.
“They lack an identifiable brand and I haven’t seen the metrics showing that they have the support in the community, the season-ticket base, the attendance projections to really be a long-term partner for the Commonwealth,” Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said.
There may be another opportunity to vote on the bill later this month. If Gov. Youngkin amends the budget, lawmakers would return to the State Capitol June 17 to approve or reject them.