House and Senate budget conferees came to an agreement late Tuesday, March 8, and published their proposed two-year budget on Wednesday in a “conference report.” The agreement contains many good things for which we have fought.
- Major increases in K-12 education funding over the current biennium, including almost $200 million in lottery funding for school divisions, which will greatly help Charlottesville and Albemarle, a 2 percent salary incentive effective December 1, 2016, and additional money for eligible students to receive free or reduced lunch and breakfast at schools.
- Major new funding for higher education, including a 3 percent across-the-board raise for faculty. UVA will receive about $10 million for access and affordability, as well as $4 million for the Focused Ultrasound Program, a cutting edge research initiative, and monies for bioscience incentives.
- Full repayment to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) of money the General Assembly borrowed several years ago – a move I voted against – and funding 100 percent of the VRS board-certified contribution rates. Both of these actions will enhance the fiscal viability of the system.
- An additional $76.2 million for mental health services.
- Fully funding the “Rainy Day Fund,” the special account we reserve for use if Virginia experiences a dramatic economic downturn.
- Additional monies for our community colleges to develop new programs to train the workforce of the next decade.
- Monies for the “Presidential Precinct,” an initiative developed by UVA, William and Mary, Monticello, Ash Lawn and Montpelier to bring scholars and elected officials from around the world to Virginia to be educated on how democracy works. This is an initiative that I and others in our area have supported, and worked with the Governor to get in his budget.
- Major initiatives for job creation through the “GoVirginia” concept. This will allow regions to cooperate in competing for economic development grants and projects necessary to build the New Virginia Economy. GoVirginia creates a great opportunity for our region given the degree to which the University, the city and the county cooperate on policy initiatives.
- Monies to fund a new General District Court judgeship in our Judicial Circuit.
In addition to these larger categories, some specific items I proposed are included in the Conference Report, such as:
- $900,000 extra funding for court-appointed counsel who take on complicated cases defending indigent clients.
- An increase in fees for court appointed mediators.
- Support for the Fostering Futures Program, which allows foster care and adoption assistance to be extended for youngsters who would otherwise “age-out” of the foster care program on their eighteenth birthday. Funded with $1.9 million from the general fund (Virginia tax dollars) and $3.9 million in non-general fund money (from the federal government or other sources), the program will benefit a large number of foster children who otherwise might experience tremendous difficulty transitioning to adult life.
- Additional money for the Centers for Independent Living. We have a wonderful center in Charlottesville called the Independence Resource Center, and this new money will help the IRC and other centers around the Commonwealth build their programs on behalf of disabled persons.
The largest missed opportunity continues to be the Republicans’ refusal to embrace Medicaid expansion under the ACA. It is ironic that despite their negative rhetoric, our budget does expand some Medicaid services, but in the most inefficient way possible. Under present law, every dollar we appropriate for Medicaid is matched by the federal government with another dollar. Consequently, when we implement new Medicaid spending for substance abuse treatment or to provide new waiver slots for intellectual or developmental disabilities in this budget, we are saying that we trust the federal government to fund its 50 percent of these programs. Yet we still hear the argument that Virginia cannot trust the federal government to continue funding “Medicaid expansion” if it happens under the ACA, where the federal government would pay 90 percent of the costs. This rejection of readily-available Medicaid money has become an article of faith for our Republican counterparts; without a change in the General Assembly’s political composition, Medicaid expansion is unlikely for the next several years.
On Thursday, the General Assembly approved a new Supreme Court Justice after an extremely flawed process. I did not support the appointment and you can see my speech explaining why in the video below.
As the session concludes, I thank you again for all of your input and support over the last sixty days. I am happy to be returning to Charlottesville to be with my family and continue my law practice. I remain available to serve constituents’ needs, and will shortly organize a series of town halls and smaller meetings to discuss the successes and failures of this General Assembly session.