Richmond Free Press Op-Ed 3/1/2022

Investing in Our Future

Last week, the Virginia House and Senate passed our own versions of the 2022 – 2024 State Budget. Our budgets reflect our priorities, and are vastly different on two key issues: education funding and tax cuts. 

Across the 9th District, I’ve heard from constituents who prioritize fully funding our education system over tax cuts. A recent Wason Center poll shows a majority of Virginia voters prefer spending on underfunded government services, such as education, public safety and social services (59%), rather than providing tax cuts or tax rebates (38%). Voters overwhelmingly support cutting the 2.5% grocery tax, either by a total repeal (47%) or by giving low-income Virginians a tax credit (25%).

The Senate Budget strikes the right balance, repealing the state tax on groceries and menstrual products and backfilling the resulting lost revenue for K-12 education. The House Budget on the other hand, adopts several of Governor Youngkin’s tax proposals. This means that the House budget invests $3 billion less than the Senate Budget in core government services, which are already underfunded. 

The difference in tax policy leads to significant differences between the Senate and House budgets for K-12 Education. While both the House and Senate budgets increase K-12 funding over the next two years, the Senate provides approximately $240 million more to schools than the House. 

One of the biggest differences is funding for school districts with high concentrations of students living in poverty through the At-Risk Add-On. The Senate increases the At-Risk Add-On by $268.5 million over the next two years, while the House only increases it by $58.3 million. 

The Senate Budget includes the state share of a five percent teacher and staff raise each year, a one-time bonus of approximately $1,000 per position in June, and investments in the teacher retirement plan. The House Budget funds the state share of 4% salary increase and 1% bonus each year.

The Senate Budget finally chips away at the cap on state funding of support personnel imposed in 2008 by providing nearly $272 million over two years to increase funding for positions already filled by divisions. As I have for several years, I introduced a budget amendment to fully lift this cap, which would cost nearly $850 million over two years. While I am disappointed we did not fully lift the cap, this is the first step towards eliminating it in over a decade! The House budget retains the cap at its current level.

The Senate Budget also includes $500 million in one-time cash for school construction and language similar to my bill adopting changes to the Literary Fund recommended by the Commission on School Construction and Modernization to make more money available to local school divisions through loans with lower interest rates and improve the health of the fund. The House budget takes $250 million from the Literary Fund to establish a construction loan rebate program.

Both budgets fund one reading specialist for every 550 students in kindergarten through third grade, but the Senate provides flexibility to allow these specialists to work with students in fourth through sixth grade. 

The Senate Budget also includes an additional $44.3 million for early childhood education and pre-K programs, compared to an additional $6 million in the House budget.

The House budget provides one-time funding for The College Partnership Laboratory Schools Fund. The Senate budget does not include this funding. 

These two budgets are now in a conference committee, which will iron out the differences. I am hopeful the final budget will prioritize responding to the urgent needs of Virginians and more fully fund our core services, particularly our schools. Virginia families are counting on us.

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