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Virginia budget deal reached with compromise

Virginia budget deal reached with compromise



Virginia budget deal reached with compromise on law enforcement pay, DMV walk-in service

Richmond Times-Dispatch

General Assembly budget negotiators reached a compromise on Friday on a plan to spend federal aid that will include a $3,000 one-time bonus this year for sheriff’s deputies and regional jail and state correctional officers, and require the Department of Motor Vehicles to submit a plan within 30 days for reopening all of its offices to walk-in services within an additional 30 days.

The compromise also endorses a temporary solution for Virginia colleges and universities, including community colleges, to regulate payments to student-athletes for use of their “name, likeness and image,” to conform with a ruling this year by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed compensation.

House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, confirmed that all 14 members of the conference committee endorsed the compromise, including three Republicans, despite a sometimes fierce partisan battle over amendments to the spending plan that Gov. Ralph Northam introduced for $4.3 billion in federal aid Virginia received under the American Rescue Plan Act.

 

“Everyone signed off on the compromise, Democrats and Republicans,” Torian said.

Howell said, “I think we came out with a proposal that everyone should be happy with.”

Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Northam, said in a statement: “The Governor is grateful to the legislature for their hard work and collaborative partnership. This bill makes critical investments in small businesses, public health infrastructure, first responders and law enforcement, universal broadband, and college affordability. It will move our Commonwealth forward, and he looks forward to seeing it passed.”

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, the only Republican to initially support the amended Senate budget on Wednesday night, said he was concerned when negotiations began that the House would balk at any changes after Northam asked budget negotiators late Thursday not to amend the spending plan he had reached with them before the General Assembly special session began.

 

However, Hanger said the committee reached a compromise just after lunch on Friday.

 

“It all worked out very pleasantly,” he said.

The biggest issue was a compromise on hazard pay bonuses for sheriff’s deputies and regional jail and state correctional officers. The Senate approved an amendment on Wednesday proposed by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, its newest member, that would have increased the bonus from $1,000 per officer, as Northam proposed, to $5,000 to match the one-time payment that the governor had proposed for state police officers in the fiscal year that began on July 1.

The amendment also would have allocated the bonuses to deputies, regional jail officers and correctional officers in each year of the two-year budget that Northam will propose in December for General Assembly action next winter. The additional cost would have been $189 million over three years.

 

Under the compromise, those officers would receive a one-time payment of $3,000 this year, as well as a commitment by the state to address their pay, including inequities between veteran and newly hired officers, in the next budget after receiving the results of a compensation study in mid-October.

 

The approach is similar to the plan proposed for state police officers, who would receive hazard pay bonuses and other compensation this year and in the next two-year budget, pending the results of a study due in October.

“We hope and expect in the next [General Assembly] session, we’ll be able to resolve all of those issues,” said Howell, who estimated the compromise would cost an additional $55 million.

Hanger said, “I count that as a win.”

Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, and Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, also had advocated for more compensation for deputies and other law officers to narrow the disparity with pay for state police.

Both Republicans agreed to the compromise, which Austin called “equitable and fair.”

“Certainly, we wanted more,” he said Friday. “We wanted parity [with state police], but we’ll get there.”

Hanger and Austin also said they were pleased with the compromise on reopening DMV offices to walk-in service instead of requiring appointments, as the agency has done since the COVID-19 pandemic began 17 months ago.

The Senate had approved an amendment proposed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, to require DMV offices to resume walk-in service within 30 days. Under the compromise, the DMV would have to submit a plan within 30 days for reopening offices for walk-in service within an additional 30 days.

“I think that’s important,” Austin said.

Earlier Friday, the DMV announced it will expand its online access by allowing customers the ability to enroll in a payment plan contract online.

According to DMV officials, the online option will enable more than 150 customers per week to skip the DMV lines, which, in turn, would increase the availability of in-person appointments.

The restoration of language Northam proposed to let colleges and universities regulate compensation to student-athletes for use of their “name, image and likeness” could be tricky in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, ruled that the provision was not properly before the legislative body under the limited scope of the special session.

House Appropriations Vice Chairman Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, called the restored budget language “a temporary fix” until the assembly can address the issue at the regular session that begins Jan. 12.

Torian and Howell said the House is not bound by Fairfax’s ruling, but Howell acknowledged that Fairfax could reach a similar decision on the proposed compromise, which the Senate’s seven negotiators supported.

“We’ll have to see how it plays out,” she said.

The conference committee addressed about 10 items in the budget, as amended by the Senate. Among them, it kept an amendment that Hanger had proposed to ensure that providers of community services to Virginians with behavioral disabilities would continue receiving a 12.5% increase in Medicaid rates through the end of next June to raise pay for their employees.

In the end, the conference committee also agreed to leave up to $1 billion of the federal aid unspent, as a hedge against a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

Republicans in both chambers had objected to what some called a “slush fund” that Northam would be able to spend under language that would allow the governor to use some of the money to respond to or prevent a public health emergency, after notifying the leaders of the budget committees.

Torian and Howell said the governor does not have unilateral authority to spend any of the money left unappropriated in the special session.

“The money is not being held back for the governor,” Torian said Friday. “It will be used in the next [two-year] budget cycle, recognizing that with the delta variant, we’re not exactly sure what the commonwealth is confronted with.”

Howell said Northam has agreed that the assembly ultimately must appropriate the money.

“From the governor’s perspective, he’s giving his authority over to the legislature,” she said.

 

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6964

Staff writer Caitlyn Freeman contributed to this report.


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