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General Assembly passes budget, but it's unlikely to go into effect for weeks
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General Assembly passes budget, but it's unlikely to go into effect for weeks

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RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly passed a revised state budget Friday, but it may be a few more weeks until the spending plan — which includes ways to help people struggling to pay rent and utility bills as well as child care assistance — goes into effect because of a political fight over redistricting reform.

The slow pace of the special session — which has gone on for 59 days — during a pandemic that has required fast-paced decisions has already been a source of criticism. Gov. Ralph Northam called for the special session primarily for the purpose of adjusting the biennium budget that had been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

The House of Delegates approved the budget on a vote of 63-35, while the Senate passed it on a vote of 23-15.

“Under reduced revenues and challenging circumstances for the people of Virginia, this budget offers a roadmap toward a safer, healthier, more just and equitable commonwealth,” said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Northam is not expected to sign the budget immediately. The House and Senate were in dispute over including language related to redistricting reform. Virginians are voting on a constitutional amendment on the November ballot about whether to create a bipartisan redistricting commission, a proposal that has fractured Democrats in the statehouse. The language in the budget would provide a guide for how the commission would work.

Senators said Wednesday the plan was to approve the budget and send it to Northam, with whom lawmakers hatched a deal on possible changes depending upon whether the amendment passes or fails Nov. 3.

Lawmakers would then have to reconvene to take action on any of the governor’s amendments to bills, including the budget. So it could take a few more weeks until a budget is enacted.

The revisions to the budget mostly focus on K-12 education and child care, higher education, health care, housing and utilities, and police and criminal justice reforms. The budget sets up a plan for how to spend the remaining federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds before the Dec. 30 deadline.

There’s about $85 million for broadband expansion. Recognizing a need to encourage addressing the urgent problem of the digital divide, Northam recently authorized an additional $30 million in CARES Act funding for broadband.

Other budget priorities include $120 million for colleges and universities to help with costs of the COVID-19 response and online learning, $76 million to support child care, and $210 million to the Virginia Employment Commission for unemployment assistance. There’s also $60 million for additional hospital reimbursements under Medicaid, $25 million to retain providers of day support services to developmentally disabled Medicaid recipients, and $72 million for hazard pay for personal care attendants who took risks this year in caring for elderly Virginians or Virginians with disabilities on Medicaid who were confined to their homes.

The budget establishes a universal moratorium on evictions for residential properties to the end of the year, only allowing an eviction if the tenant refuses to apply and cooperate with the landlord’s application to the rent and mortgage relief program.

The utility disconnection moratorium will be extended until 60 days after the end of the declared state of emergency or until economic or public health conditions improve. A repayment plan program will be established for customers who owe money during the moratorium.

The budget provides relief to school divisions that took a budgetary hit and are dealing with the challenges of reopening. The budget allocates $95 million from gaming machine revenues to backfill reduced sales tax revenue, $220 million in relief funds for per-pupil payments and $9 million in CARES Act funding to support technology needs.

This year, school divisions across the state have seen a decline in enrollment due to parents deciding to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools. Some parents of kindergartners have also decided to defer enrollment for a year. The budget calls for delaying adjustments to school divisions’ state funding until after the final average daily membership is calculated in March, allowing the General Assembly to address the issue in its regular session.

The budget also will restore some education funding that had been halted, including $35 million in 2022 to supplement the “at-risk add-on” that provides more per-pupil funding for each low-income student. Also, $37 million will go toward expanding early childhood education, a priority of Northam’s prior to the pandemic.

Lawmakers were also able to save several other priorities that were approved during the regular session but had to be halted until the state figured out its revenues. One of those priorities that they restored to the budget was providing a dental benefit for adult Medicaid patients.

The legislature passed more than a dozen new criminal justice and police reform measures, and the budget sets aside $12 million to implement those changes. There is also $6 million to support a grant program to help law enforcement agencies purchase body-worn cameras.

Law enforcement officers will receive a one-time bonus of $500 at the end of this year, which is estimated to cost a total of $11 million.

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"This budget is still a great budget for the people of Virginia," Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said about the new spending priorities from the legislature after the coronavirus upended the biennium budget.

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