Virginia state employees and public school teachers could soon be getting raises and bonuses under budget proposals before the state House and Senate.
Money committees in both chambers unveiled their proposals Sunday for a two-year and more than $135 billion state spending plan, both with larger raises than what Gov. Ralph Northam had proposed. Each chamber will now vote on its version of a state budget before trying to reconcile their differences before the legislative session ends next month.
Democrats have full control of the budget process this year for the first time in more than two decades and there is broad agreement to boost spending on education, health care and other areas. The budget process also has been made easier by a stronger than expected economy bringing in extra tax revenue.
But there are key differences between proposed budgets, with teacher and state employee compensation being one of the most high-profile.
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“We saw the lack of compensation as a gap in the introduced budget,” said House Democratic Del. Roslyn Tyler.
Teacher pay is a hot button issue in Virginia this year, as teachers have been pressing lawmakers for significant new education funding. The state has funded teacher pay increases the past two years, but average pay is still far below the national average. Teacher salaries in Virginia are split between the state and local governments.
Northam proposed 3% raise in teacher pay starting the second year of the budget. The House is proposing a 2% raise in both years and the Senate proposed a 3% raise in the first year and a 4% in the second. The Senate is also proposing a 3% bonus for teachers later this year.
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Both chambers would decrease the amount Northam has proposed to hire more school counselors, freeing up more money for raises.
Some teachers protested before the committee hearings, saying lawmakers need to overhaul the state's tax code so there's significantly more money for education.
Emma Clark, an 8th grade English teacher from Chesterfield County, said the raise being proposed by lawmakers is inadequate.
"It shouldn't even be called a raise," Clark said of the House proposal. “It's barely a cost of living increase.”
Lawmakers indicated they support in some form Northam's proposal to raise tobacco and gas taxes, but have indicated they are not interested in pursing a major tax overhaul this year. Progressive groups have long complained that Virginia's tax code is antiquated and regressive. The state's income tax brackets haven't been changed in years and currently tops at 5.75% for any income over $17,000.
Some Democrats said they are sympathetic to the teachers' arguments but said there is no political appetite for a broad tax overhaul this year.
“When people are prepared to vote for higher taxes we'll be in a better position but right now the votes aren't there," said Democratic Sen. Janet Howell, head of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.
For state employees, Northam proposed some pay increases for certain types of jobs, while the lawmakers in both chambers wants across the board raises and bonuses with extra money going to law enforcement officials.
The governor's spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor will work closely with lawmakers to “ensure that Virginia advances a budget that grows our economy, supports Virginians who need help, and makes critical investments in the Commonwealth's long-term success.”
There are many other differences besides compensation to be worked out.
Lawmakers in the House voted to boost funding to public universities to allow them to freeze tuition for a second straight year, but the Senate did not. The House budget also includes a $10 million grant to help the city of Virginia Beach renovate the municipal building where a gunman killed a dozen people last year in one of the state's worst mass shootings, which the Senate did not include.