Richmond Free Press Column: General Assembly Session Update #5

A message from Senator McClellan

Last week the House and Senate adopted amendments to the 2016-2018 budget to address a projected $279.3 million revenue shortfall.  The Senate budget reflects its top priorities of supporting mental health programs, avoiding spending cuts for public education and safety net programs, and providing an overdue pay raise for all state employees and teachers.  Specifically, the Senate budget proposes a 3 percent raise for state classified employees, a 2 percent raise for college and university faculty, the state share of a 2 percent raise for public school teachers, and a 2 percent raise for state-supported local employees.  Instead of providing a raise for teachers, the House budget increases funding for school divisions, which may use the money for raises or for other priorities. 

The Senate budget also includes significant funding to address the immediate crisis facing our mental health system and to put it on a path to serve Virginians better in the long-term. The Governor’s introduced budget included $8.2 million for “same day access” to screening and assessment services at Community Services Boards, which will allow Virginia to take the first step towards a comprehensive, statewide system of community treatment. The Governor also proposed investing $7.4 million to increase capacity at state facilities stressed as a result of changes to our temporary detention order laws. To ensure the safety of staff and those being served at these facilities, the Governor included $2.1 million for necessary medication and to hire an additional 24 full-time security and direct care employees. The Governor also invested an additional $4.2 million to address the long-standing need to strengthen mental health services in local and regional jails. Unfortunately, the Senate amendments cut the funding for mental health screenings and assessments in regional and local jails. However, the Senate budget adds an additional $5.0 million in funding for permanent supportive housing, which is often overlooked when addressing mental health needs. The Senate budget also adds an additional $2.5 million to improve the salaries of high-turnover positions within our system of state mental health facilities.

I was disappointed that the Senate cut in half the funding for a pilot program adopted last year to provide low-income Virginia women with education and access to long-acting, reversible contraception, or LARCs. The funding for this project would come from federal grants, not the general fund. The Senate also specifically excluded coverage of IUDs, a specific type of LARC. The House budget cut the program in its entirety.

Differences between the House and Senate budgets will be resolved in a conference committee in the final week of session.

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