Column: Budget Will Reflects Values, Priorities

Column: Budget Will Reflects Values, Priorities

Virginia operates on a biennial budget comprising some $158 billion in spending on state programs and services. This budget must pass each legislative body and receive the Governor’s signature after our “long” 60-day session. During the process, each body reports their version of the budget, which includes some of the amendments offered by members for funding that was not originally included in the introduced budget. These two, often competing, budgets must then be negotiated and reconciled in a “committee of conference” during the final two weeks of session. 

A budget is more than a balance sheet — it reflects the values and the priorities of those who craft it. It tells us, arithmetically, what areas, issues, projects, and programs are most important by those who influenced the budget. With differing parties holding majorities in the Senate and House this year, the reported versions of the budget are vastly different and reflect the difference in the priorities and values of each body. These differences create a significant challenge for those tasked with negotiating a compromise proposal. The Senate proposal contains major investments in education and unemployment benefits, prudent tax cuts, and a number of key wins for the 30th District which I hope will be retained in the final spending bill. 

A major theme on the campaign trail this year was needed investments in education. I am glad that the Senate budget invests in our teachers, our school infrastructure, and critical programs including Pre-K for at-risk students. We increased the number of student support positions such as school nurses, counselors, and reading specialists from 17.75 per 1,000 students to 20 per 1,000 students, and proposed a five percent raise for all teachers, along with a one-time, $2,000 bonus. Our teachers have worked diligently and dedicatedly during the pandemic under unforeseeably difficult circumstances — their prioritization in the budget begins to reflect this. 

Additionally, we increased the investment in educating at-risk Pre-K students by $700 per pupil per year and proposed $500 million for school construction. More than half of Virginia’s schools are over 50 years old, and the renovation of existing facilities paired with the construction of new ones is critical to providing a healthy, functional learning environment for our students, teachers and staff. 

We continue to work on reforming the Virginia Employment Commission, proposing $110 million to replenish our depleted unemployment trust fund and $500,000 to initiate a comprehensive review of the efficiencies and processes of the Commission. 

The Senate included some $300 million in funding to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which builds and subsidizes affordable housing. We additionally included $47 million in tax subsidies for the construction of new affordable housing. I have long been an advocate for deliberate investment in affordable housing and am glad we are finally moving to meet the market demand which is felt so strongly, especially in Northern Virginia.

The Senate budget also includes thoughtful, pragmatic tax relief for Virginians to reduce the increasing cost of living caused by supply chain issues, conflict in Ukraine, and inflation on certain goods felt heavily in Northern Virginia. We provided a one-time tax rebate of $250 for single taxpayers and $500 for married taxpayers filing a joint return, reduced the grocery tax by 1.5% while retaining the locality share for school and transportation funding, and expanded the refundability of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income Virginians. This will provide crucial dollars directly back into the pockets of those who need it most, without gutting ongoing funding for the programs and infrastructure of the Commonwealth. 

I was pleased to get a number of key priorities included in the Senate budget via amendments offered in subcommittees. During the interim, constituents often approach me with very specific, niche concerns related to the state budget, which are frequently not on the radar of the Governor or the Secretariats who help prepare the introduced budget. This year I was glad to get $200,000 to preserve and digitize records at Central State Hospital at the request of Racial Justice Alexandria. These funds will support a research team currently digitizing the records of Central State, which served as the first segregated Black sanitorium in the United States, opening nearly immediately after the end of the civil war. Without digitization, these records are at risk of deterioration and eventually will be lost to history. 

I was also able to obtain $8.8 million to complete the installation of air conditioning at several adult correctional facilities which are currently without AC, subjecting those incarcerated to severe summer heat. 

I worked to secure funding to establish an education center on naval history in Alexandria supporting the Tall Ship Providence. The John Warner Maritime History Center will serve as a major tourist and economic development draw to the waterfront and enhance the already rich history of our city. 

We also allocated $200,000 for a Veteran Farmer Training Program through Arcadia Farms in Mount Vernon, which I visited along with Governor Northam this summer. Since 2016 Arcadia has trained 125 military veterans, active-duty service members and family members for new careers in agriculture. Arcadia offers three training tracks: the Veteran Farmer Reserve, the Veteran Farm Fellowship, a GI Bill-compliant on-the-job training program apprenticed to professional farmers, and the Arcadia Veteran Farm Incubator. 

Additionally, I was glad to see $2 million included in the Senate budget to increase public access to historic River Farm, which has been saved from sale and development due to ongoing advocacy from local and state leaders and citizen activists. 

Finally, the Senate budget retains key funding for the remediation of Alexandria’s combined sewer overflow system. The House budget fully removed this funding, which is incredibly concerning for ratepayers in the city, and I will work to ensure it is reinstated in the conference committee. 

We will have to wait a couple of more weeks for the differences in the Senate and House budget to be reconciled and for the final budget to be announced. It will be the result of collaboration and compromise, and I hope it will reflect our values while bringing much-needed and worthy investments to every corner of the Commonwealth. 

It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District.