Lawmakers intend to remove redistricting language from Virginia budget

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Virginia House and Senate leaders have agreed to remove budget language that would help enact a proposed constitutional amendment if it is approved by voters via a ballot referendum in November, choosing instead to revisit the language only if the amendment is approved next month.

Senators who were involved in talks with Gov. Ralph Northam and House leadership have assured their colleagues the language would be approved in the form of a budget amendment if the redistricting amendment is approved. The agreement came from informal talks among the governor, Senate leaders and House leaders and will be reflected in the compromise budget bill when it is presented to lawmakers.

While speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, told lawmakers he personally spoke with Northam, who promised he would pass down a budget amendment with the language if the amendment is approved.

Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chairperson Janet Howell, D-Reston, said the House would not bypass the amendment and Democratic leadership would see a revolt from its own party if it tried to use procedural manipulation to block a vote.

The Center Square reached out to a spokespeople for Northam and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, but has not received a response.

The constitutional amendment, which would establish a bipartisan redistricting commission, is supported by House and Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats, but it is opposed by House Democratic leadership. Some Senate Republicans expressed concern House Democratic leadership might try to prevent the passage of a budget amendment regarding redistricting because of their opposition to the amendment.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, the Senate and House have not passed a budget bill because the chambers take different approaches on some initiatives, including utility bills assistance and bonuses for state workers. House and Senate leadership plan to formally resolve these differences in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

Both bills provide assistance to Virginians who are behind on their utility bills because of financial losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions imposed by the state. In the original House language, the funding would come from federal COVID-19 relief money. The Senate version stays true to Northam’s proposal, which funds the assistance with excess money obtained by the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy.

The Senate-amended version includes a guaranteed $500 bonus for state employees, including law enforcement and teachers. The House version includes a $1,500 bonus for these employees, but it would be contingent on revenue increasing enough to cover the costs.

Northam has come out against contingent spending in the budget and has said lawmakers should address those spending priorities when they have a better idea about the state’s revenue situation. The governor also has been critical of both chambers for allocating federal COVID-19 funds to specific projects and threatened to veto the budget if it does not give him enough flexibility to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both chambers include $95 million in one-time education funding to offset losses caused by a decrease in sales tax revenue. This money would come from revenue accrued through taxes on skilled gaming machines. Both chambers also include additional broadband funding and assistance for renters who are behind on their rent.

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