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State budgets proposed
Pay boost, school security, highway funds targeted

Monday, February 4, 2013

RICHMOND (AP) — State workers, public educators and Virginia’s disabled are big winners in House and Senate budgets advanced Sunday by the budget-writing committees of Virginia’s General Assembly.

But a partisan spat erupted in the Senate over the expansion of Medicaid eligibility, which could mire the budget for weeks or more in profound and protracted differences for the second year in a row.

State employees, school teachers and support staff, college faculty and local constitutional officers would receive a pay raise of 3 percent on average. That’s 1 percent larger than the previous proposal.

Part of that would give state agencies the ability to combat “salary compression” for senior employees, which results when starting pay to attract new hires grows faster than pay for senior staff, creating salary stagnation that makes experienced employees easy to hire away.

The House budget also provides $6 million and the Senate budget provides more than $12 million in “cost of competing” money to help school districts in suburban localities in northern Virginia enhance pay for support staff and prevent out-of-state and private employers from poaching them. Gov. Bob McDonnell had eliminated all the funding in the budget he submitted in December.

Both budgets provide about $13.5 billion for kindergarten through high school, including $53.5 million for the 2 percent teacher pay raise. There’s another $9 million for support staff such as librarians and teachers’ aides. But to qualify for the money, localities would have to match the state’s funding and provide another 2 percent pay boost of their own.

The House budget establishes a five-year, $30 million fund to help school divisions buy equipment to enhance security in the wake of December’s shooting that killed 20 children and six staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. That would allow localities to submit competitive bids for grants as high as $100,000 each to beef up campus safety and security measures. Local governments would have to provide a match of at least one-fourth of the state grant.

In contrast, the Senate budget provides only an additional $1 million for school resources officers and $125,000 to improve school emergency-response training.

The biggest sticking point in the Senate, however, is Medicaid.

Finance Committee Democrats objected to putting conditions on expanding Medicaid, something Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, called “morally wrong.” The budget advanced on a 10-5 party-line vote with Republicans voicing concerns that a deadlock in the evenly divided 40-member Senate later this week could weaken the chamber’s negotiating position with the House of Delegates.

Neither House nor Senate budgets specify a dollar amount for expanding Medicaid under federal health care reform laws. Instead, both condition the expansion on federal acceptance of stricter Virginia criteria and cost-containment reforms, federal funding of the expansion and final General Assembly approval in 2014.

Among the reforms both budgets seek in exchange for approving expansion in Virginia is assurance that benefits would be similar to those provided by commercial insurers.

The House budget was more explicit, directing the Department of Medical Assistance Services to seek expansion Medicaid eligibility for those within 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,600 for a family of four. It advanced on a bipartisan 22-0 vote.

As expected, some of McDonnell’s transportation funding reforms survive: The House and Senate committees, both ruled by Republicans, both include in their budgets a shift of a 0.05 percent share of existing state sales tax collections — or an additional $49 million — to the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund.

That has created another partisan schism that threatens to hold up passage in the Senate, where Democrats decry it as a raid on funding for such basic state services as public schools, public safety and health care.

That’s but a sliver of McDonnell’s $3.1 billion, five-year transportation funding reform package, the final effort of his single four-year term for an enduring legacy. It boosts the state sales tax by 16 percent, from 5 cents to 5.8 cents on the dollar, eliminates the 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax but keeps the tax on diesel fuel, levies a $100 fee on new hybrid car purchases and would direct taxes on out-of-state catalog and online sales, should Congress pass a law allowing it.

The budget would increase the number of waivers that fund community-based care for Virginians with mental and developmental disabilities instead of confinement in a state institution.

The House proposals would boost waivers for Virginia’s intellectually disabled by 14 percent from 8,771 waivers last June to just short of 10,000 by the time this two-year budget expires in June 2014. McDonnell proposed 535 additional waivers in his budget, and the House proposes adding 200 more.

Waivers for the developmentally disabled would increase 25 percent over the life of the budget under the House plan, from 716 last summer to nearly 900.

The improvement comes as state strives to meet federal Justice Department deadlines to transition more intellectually disabled Virginians to community care from state facilities where many remain warehoused.

 

 
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