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Updated 1:43 p.m. Friday
RICHMOND – Concerned that the partisan stalemate in the legislature will unnecessarily drag out negotiations over amendments to the state’s biennial budget in a year when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, on Friday named the chamber’s budget conferees, urging them to get to work as soon as possible.
“It is my sincere hope that you will now be able to proceed expeditiously and convene negotiations so the General Assembly can fulfill our constitutional duty and present a budget bill to the Governor before the current Regular Session ends on Feb. 25,” Gilbert said in the letter to the money committee chairs obtained by Cardinal News.
“With only two weeks remaining in session, I am concerned that delaying the start of these discussions will make it much more difficult for us to complete our talks and produce a final product, let alone one that makes the best possible decisions for the commonwealth,” Gilbert said.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin rolled out his amended budget proposal in December, which included another $1 billion in proposed tax cuts, and a $230 million package to overhaul the state’s behavioral health system. The committees released their proposed amendments to the budget released on Sunday, and both the House of Delegates and the state Senate passed their individual budget bills.
The House version includes $55 million for the construction of a new inland port in Virginia in Southwest Virginia, $150 million allocation to complete the widening of Interstate 81 between exits 143 and 150 in the Roanoke Valley, and $14.7 million to begin the planned transformation of Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance use disorder treatment and addiction recovery.
Most of the disagreements center around Youngkin’s push for more tax relief, as Democrats believe that last year’s historic investment of $3.5 billion in cuts and rebates were more than enough.
“I think that is going to be where we are the furthest apart, that’s obviously pretty clear, and we are going to stand very firm on that, but we will come to some sort of agreement. Is it going to be in the form that the governor wants? I doubt that,” Gianni Snidle, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, told Cardinal News Friday.
Virginia’s legislature adopts a two-year budget every other year, and unlike the federal government, the commonwealth must remain funded to avert a detrimental impact not only on the state government but localities relying on cash from the state. The biennial budget is enacted into law in even-numbered years, and amendments to it are enacted in odd-numbered years.
Virginia’s budget process is often a slow-moving, at times excruciating process that, unless all three branches of the state government are controlled by one party, requires the ability of all stakeholders, elected or not, to work together and compromise.
Once the budget Conference Committee is appointed, members will negotiate the final version of the amended budget and present it to the House and Senate, where it is voted on again before heading to the governor’s desk.
Last year, the budget battle dragged on until June 1 – just one month before the beginning of the new fiscal year – when the legislature approved a spending bill including a total of $4 billion in tax relief, a 10% pay increase for state employees and teachers, a partial repeal of the state’s grocery tax, plus record investments in public education, and $1.25 billion to leverage more than $3 billion for school construction and modernization projects.
This year, 14 legislators – the so-called conferees – will once again work to resolve any differences between the amended budget versions passed by the two houses, resulting in a single enrolled bill.
The appointees from the House remain the same as last year, including House Appropriations Committee chairman Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack, Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax.
As the budget is usually one of the last things to get approved, conferees this year did not expect to be named and to start meeting until sometime next week, but lawmakers are eager to return to their home districts after the General Assembly adjourns to start raising money for their re-election campaigns.
“We are committed to working together to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible,” Austin said in an interview Friday. “Certainly there are differences, but we are all civil and friendly to each other, we respect each other, and I think we will come to a conclusion fairly quickly, I think.”
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in an email that the governor “looks forward to working with the House of Delegates and State Senate” to reach a final budget, “with needed tax cuts, a transformation of the behavioral health system, and an investment in education that delivers for all Virginians.”