The following is from State Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax/Arlington), who served as a budget conferee and is one of the most powerful members of the State Senate. She did a great job in helping to push through what she calls “by far the best budget we have produced in decades” and deserves a lot of credit!
Reflections on Our Extended Session
Finally, finally, we have a budget. As the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, I have been working closely with senior Republicans in the House and Senate to reach a compromise budget. It is by far the best budget we have produced in decades.
People of good will, working together against obstructionists and refusing to give up, can change the future of our state.
Citizens demanding action propel us forward. Governor Northam was brilliant: no budget without Medicaid Expansion. He spoke softly and carried a big stick!
The budget includes the expansion of Medicaid coverage to approximately 400,000 adults, most of whom are employed. These are the working poor, our neighbors who work long hours for little pay and no benefits. Virginia has long had one of the stingiest programs in the country. Our current program doesn’t cover most adults – but it is recognized as one of the best run in the country. We are committed to continuing to run an efficient program. But that is not good enough. Moving forward, we are creating a new unit at JLARC (Joint Audit and Review Commission) to constantly evaluate the program and recommend improvements.
It is estimated that Virginia will receive about two billion dollars a year from Washington for the expansion. Those funds will be an economic stimulus and job creator for our state, especially in the more impoverished regions. Our challenged rural hospitals will be stabilized. Additionally, people with substance abuse problems and mental health issues will be able to receive professional help.
Because we are finally accepting the money Virginia taxpayers have been sending to Washington, and because we are assessing hospitals to pay the state’s 10% share of expansion, we will save about half a billion dollars in state General funds. These savings are being reinvested in programs for Virginians.
All sections of our budget are benefiting.
Most impressive are the program enhancements to our mental health and substance abuse programs. We are implementing virtually all of the recommendations of the Deeds Commission on Mental Health Reform. I am a member of the Commission and can assure you these improvements are essential to make our system humane and able to treat those who need our help. Over $84 million in new dollars will be spent to modernize our system. Most importantly, funding will be focused on preventing the cruel and costly practice of sending those with mental illness to jail. Of special importance to me, we are investing $14 million in housing supports for people with mental illnesses.
One of the most difficult issues we have faced for the past two decades is how long the waiting list is for services for people with intellectual disabilities. We are under court order to close most of our training centers and provide community options for these disabled people. We have been slowly increasing opportunities but the waiting list nonetheless grows. Forty six million additional dollars are being directed to address this crisis. By funding new slots and reallocating slot distribution we are adding 1645 disabled people to our waiver system. That reduced by about half the waiting list for Priority One individuals. We still have a long way to go, but this is the greatest reduction in the waiting list ever.
We are significantly increasing funding to K-12 education. In addition to completely funding the biennial “rebenchmarking” ($481 million), we have approved the state share of a 3% salary increase for school positions, effective July 1, 2019, assuming we hit revenue targets. Several pilot and innovative initiatives have been funded. For example, Wolftrap’s early education program in the arts is being expanded into various parts of the state.
Pre-Kindergarten funding and programs have also been augmented more than $6 million and many of the constructive recommendations of JLARC have been approved.
Economic development is a priority. GOVirginia, an initiative encouraging creative cooperation to promote regional development statewide, has received an additional $16 million. CyberX received $20 million. This is an initiative of our universities and business community to make our state competitive in the growing cyber security sector.
We are continuing to reform our juvenile justice system. The changes are working! Kids are not recidivating at the former rate – in fact, we now are leading the nation rehabilitating youthful offenders. We are heavily investing in smaller facilities and programs in local communities. The savings we reap by helping children in less expensive settings than juvenile prisons will be reinvested in programs to set them on the right path.
We are setting aside nearly one billion dollars to cushion our programs from any downturn in the economy. Bonding agencies are worried about Virginia’s dependence on federal government spending in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. We believe they will support our efforts and continue to give us a AAA bond rating.
Our growing economy and savings from expanding Medicaid have made all this possible.
The process we were forced to create as a result of the stonewalling of the majority of the Republicans is not one I want to repeat. Those handful of us tasked with coming up with the compromise budget were reluctant to go outside the usual process.
However, the reality was we had to pass a budget. Local governments could not finalize their budget without knowing state supports. Virginia is required to pass a balanced budget. We cannot rely on continuing resolutions. Our current budget ends June 30. We were about to go off a cliff. Delegate Chris Jones and Senator Emmett Hanger (both Republicans) deserve our respect and gratitude. They took the lead and guided us to an excellent budget in very troubled times.
I look forward to your comments and advice. And, my aide, Karol Straub, and I relish helping you with any difficulties with state government.
Senator Janet Howell