With a long-sought compromise reached, Virginia’s legislature will vote Wednesday on a state budget that regional politicians say includes a fair share for people and places in Southwest Virginia.
Relief to taxpayers, money for school construction, raises for state workers including teachers and law enforcement, investments in health care and other regional facilities are among the budget items that area legislators mentioned Tuesday as they traveled to Richmond for Wednesday’s vote.
Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and was one of the 14 House and Senate conferees who met behind closed doors after the Virginia General Assembly adjourned without a budget agreement in March. A budget conference report was released Sunday.
“With a $160 billion budget over the two-year biennium, there’s a lot of things on those pages,” Austin said of the budget report. “A lot of money returned to the taxpayer. Plus, a lot of things that we wanted and needed are in the budget.”
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Sitting on state coffers stoked partly by an influx of federal coronavirus relief money, legislators were able to offer direct tax relief to Virginians, said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who this year joined the House Appropriations Committee.
“We wanted to make sure that we provided relief directly back to Virginia, so there will be rebate checks of $250 up to $500 sent to all Virginians,” Rasoul said. “The rebate checks will likely be in the mail in August or September … as soon as we can get them processed.”
And the state is doing away with its 1.5% portion of the grocery tax, although a 1% grocery tax will still be collected for localities to spend as desired, said Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. He had proposed a total repeal of the 2.5% grocery tax, but the compromise is part of an “almost perfect budget,” McNamara said.
“It’s something where we almost got there, and it’s just a matter of maybe we can finish the job up next year,” McNamara said of compromises made. Of the overall budget: “It’s an awful lot of money going back to taxpayers’ pockets, while at the same time continuing to fund the Commonwealth of Virginia in a very prudent fashion.”
McNamara also pointed out a big boost in state funding for school construction. Advocates have long sought state support to help rebuild and modernize crumbling school buildings across the region and state.
“This budget provides almost $1 billion to school construction, which could leverage about $3.2 billion worth of building,” McNamara said. “This is not ongoing money, but it does provide a fantastic bridge until we start receiving money for school construction anticipated from the casino gambling that was approved a couple years ago.”
Also in the budget is money for state facilities, like $6 million for new construction expanding Virginia Tech-Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in downtown Roanoke.
Rasoul said there is $750,000 for a study to reimagine Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County for improved mental and behavioral health services.
“While the state is taking a look at the whole behavioral health system, and developing a strategic plan for moving forward, we can specifically talk about how we’re going to reimagine and transform the Catawba [Hospital] campus… to handle substance use disorder issues in our region,” Rasoul said. “We want to make sure we have these resources to help our families in need.”
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the budget proposal includes $500,000 for the Virginia Museum of Transportation in downtown Roanoke. Museum leaders this year said the facility operates without a marketing budget, and needs upkeep.
“This is the official transportation museum of Virginia … I asked for $2 million, and for it to be an official state agency,” Edwards said. “But $500,000, this is a good start … It’s important to increase tourism for the museum, and to help improve it.”
The budget also funds big-dollar projects in other parts of the state, like $1 billion for the Port of Virginia, and $300 million for widening Interstate 64 in eastern Virginia, said Austin, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
That’s part of the give-and-take of budgeting for so many needs statewide, he said.
“Yes, I would’ve liked to have that money for I-81 in our region,” Austin said. “We’re going to get some money for I-81, but you know, there’s a compromise. Sometimes you just have to compromise.”
Compromise is a word used frequently this week by state legislators, who on Wednesday hope to pass a budget that is signed timely into action by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, before the next government year begins July 1.
“There was good negotiation between the House and the Senate … There’s been a great compromise,” Austin said. “It’s an honor to be at the table and to help finalize all that and work through it. And you know, it’s nice to be able to bring some of it back home.”