Virginia lawmakers strike deal on spending COVID-19 funds

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers tasked with reconciling House and Senate spending plans for $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief money reached an agreement Friday on a proposal that would preserve most of a plan crafted by Democrats but would also include some changes proposed by Republicans, including raising bonuses for sheriffs’ deputies and regional jail officers from $1,000 to $3,000.
Details of the proposal were provided to The Associated Press by Democratic Del. Luke Torian, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, two members of a conference committee assigned to hash out a compromise. Torian and Hanger said all 14 members of the committee have agreed to the proposal, which is expected to be debated and possibly voted on Monday.
Earlier this week, the House of Delegates approved a spending plan crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Democratic leaders. The Senate also approved the bill but made a handful of amendments after angry protests from Republicans who said they had been shut out of the budget process.
Both the Senate and House bills call for spending most of Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the American Rescue Plan funding on initiatives aimed at helping small businesses, improving air quality in public schools, bolstering mental health and substance-abuse treatment, increasing broadband access and replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund.
Among the amendments by the Senate was a provision to raise a $1,000 bonus proposed in Northam’s bill for sheriff’s deputies and regional jail officers to $5,000, the same amount state police will receive under the Democratic plan. Hanger said the conference committee decided on a compromise that, if approved, would give sheriffs’ deputies and jail officers $3,000 bonuses and maintain the $5,000 bonuses pledged to state police.
Another Senate-proposed amendment approved by the committee would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to resume walk-in service at its customer service centers throughout the state. Because of the pandemic, the DMV has instituted an appointment-only system for in-person services.
In a win for Northam, the conference committee also decided to leave in the budget a provision that would allow student athletes — including students at four-year universities and community colleges — to receive compensation from outside parties for use of their name, image and likeness in sponsorships, paid partnerships and advertisements. The Senate had stripped that language from the bill, arguing that the measure should not be considered during a special legislative session called to focus on how to spend federal coronavirus relief funds.
The committee also agreed to keep an amendment proposed by Hanger that will extend a 12.5% Medicaid rate increase for providers of services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
In an email to conference committee members late Thursday, state Finance Secretary Joe Flores urged the committee to leave Northam’s spending plan intact, without any amendments.
But on Friday, after details of the plan approved by the conference committee began to circulate, Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said Northam supports the compromise.
“This bill makes critical investments in small businesses, public health infrastructure, first responders and law enforcement, universal broadband, and college affordability,” Yarmosky said. “It will move our Commonwealth forward, and we look forward to seeing it passed.”
The budget plan, as written by Northam and fellow Democrats, sets aside about $800 million to use later as the state continues to deal with the pandemic’s impact on the economy. Hanger said the plan approved by the conference committee reduces the amount of unallocated money to about $700 million.
Democratic Sen. Janet Howell, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, did not respond to an email seeking comment.