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Assembly to take up budget, including millions for lab schools, officers in schools

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin gives a few remarks Tuesday before "ceremonially signing" five bills as the bills' patrons looked at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond. Youngkin already signed the bills on reforms to the Virginia Employment Commission and to establish family leave insurance as a class of insurance.

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin is holding his fire until after the General Assembly acts Wednesday on a pair of budgets that deliver most of the tax cuts the freshman Republican governor promised in his campaign last fall, with some help from his Democratic predecessor.

Youngkin, in an appearance to ceremonially sign bills to reform the beleaguered Virginia Employment Commission and give private employers a new option for offering paid family leave to employees, said Tuesday he’s “pleased with the framework” in a budget compromise unveiled informally last week.

“We still have work to do,” he said.

The work will resume Wednesday when the assembly reconvenes in special session to adopt changes to the current budget for this year and a new $165 billion budget for the two fiscal years beginning July 1.

The budget agreement includes $100 million for nontraditional lab schools — two-thirds of what Youngkin had asked — and an additional $22.5 million per year to pay for school resource officer incentive grants. Legislators will consider that provision eight days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

The budgets a joint conference committee approved contain $4 billion in tax cuts, including one-time tax rebates, a partial repeal of the sales tax on groceries and a break for low-income working families that Youngkin’s predecessor, then-Gov. Ralph Northam, included in his parting budget proposal nearly six months ago in a nod to his successor’s political priorities.

“From the start, Virginia families deserved a budget that helps them make ends meet and invests in the future,” said Ashley C. Kenneth, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which had lobbied for the refundable earned income tax credit. “This conference proposal makes some notable steps in that direction, including much-needed relief for parents.”

The budget agreement also includes raises of 5% each year for state employees, teachers and other state-supported local employees, with the first payable Aug. 1, and a $1,000 bonus Dec. 1. It would make $1 billion in additional state contributions to public employee retirement plans and $80 million for other retirement benefits to reduce long-term unfunded liabilities.

Unfinished business

In addition to adopting the two budgets, the legislature will complete work on about four dozen bills it left unresolved when it adjourned its 60-day session March 12.

The assembly also will elect judges to two general district court judicial vacancies, but isn’t likely to fill two vacant seats on the Virginia Supreme Court and one on the State Corporation Commission until it returns later in June to act on Youngkin’s vetoes and proposed amendments to the budgets and other legislation during a seven-day window for his actions.

Also Wednesday, House Democrats will choose a new leader after ousting former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, on April 27. The candidates are Del. Don Scott Jr., D-Portsmouth, who led the push to oust Filler-Corn, and two candidates who were allies of Filler-Corn when she was speaker: Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax.

Youngkin will find much to like in the two budgets, including a nearly 80% boost to the standard deduction for income tax filers during the next four years and an exemption for military retirement income that will reach a maximum limit of $40,000 in four years.

The budget agreement would not repeal the local option sales tax on groceries or suspend the state gas tax for three months, as Youngkin had sought. It would give one-time tax rebates of $250 per person and $500 for families, instead of the $300 and $600 give-backs the governor and House Republicans had wanted.

Resource officers

The governor said he went online on Sunday night to check the details of the budget deal to ensure it included the money for officers in schools. “There is sufficient money in the budget to fund school resource officers across the commonwealth — hugely important,” he said Tuesday.

Youngkin acknowledged the political ramifications of the school shootings in Texas and an apparently racially motivated attack at a supermarket in Buffalo on May 14 that killed 10 people, all Black. The assembly will consider at least three bills related to firearms and gun violence Wednesday.

“The reality is there is going to be a lot of politics around this at both ends,” he said Tuesday, “and politics is not the way right now to make progress on the things we can do.”

On lab schools, Youngkin wants colleges and universities to open the K-12 schools with public dollars as an option to traditional public schools. Youngkin initially requested $150 million to help establish new schools and fund the cost of developing programs.

School buildings

The budget also breaks new ground for the state in helping local school divisions repair or replace old school buildings. It includes $1.25 billion for a combination of grants and low-interest loans for school modernization, including $400 million in payments to school divisions in the first year.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who led a bipartisan commission on school construction and modernization, said she worked with Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, to make “a major investment in repairing Virginia’s crumbling school infrastructure.”

“This investment provides a strong start, but we have many years of work ahead to modernize Virginia’s aging schools,” McClellan said Tuesday.

She also touted the budget’s inclusion of more than $272 million to partially restore state funding of school positions — such as social workers, psychologists and nurses — which had been capped under the Standards of Quality 13 years ago during the Great Recession.

The agreement also includes $10 million per year to carry out a compromise of what McClellan said was her proposal to require “every elementary school in Virginia to have a full-time principal, regardless of the school’s size.”

However, the assembly could backtrack on marijuana decriminalization — a signature policy breakthrough under two years of Democratic control before Republicans won back the House last fall.

The proposed budget agreement would make public possession of more than four ounces of marijuana a Class 3 misdemeanor. The assembly passed legislation in 2021 to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana for adults, and make amounts up to a pound punishable by a civil infraction, not a criminal misdemeanor.

Hazing

Among other unresolved issues, a bill that addresses the punishment for hazing at Virginia’s colleges is expected to be tabled until next year, said Courtney White, the cousin of Adam Oakes, who died after a VCU fraternity party last year.

The House passed a bill that would have made hazing a Class 5 felony — punishable by up to 10 years in prison — if it results in the bodily injury or death of a student. Currently, hazing is a Class 1 misdemeanor, and those found guilty serve no more than one year in jail.

The Senate passed a different version of the bill that would keep hazing a misdemeanor. Oakes’ family supports the House version.

Three former members of the Delta Chi fraternity have been found guilty in connection to Oakes’ death. None has received jail time.

Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writers Patrick Wilson and Eric Kolenich contributed to this report.

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