Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Not with a bang but a whimper"

As far as VEA is concerned, it appears that Special Session I has essentially concluded.  The remaining issue which could have a long range impact on education funding, Medicaid Expansion, may be decided by the judicial branch.

From a legislative perspective, we did make some gains in 2014:
  A-F School Grading Delay

  SOL Reform

  Pension Funding

  From 5 to 10 Days to Contest Dismissal

  Lactation Support

From a budget perspective the high point of the session was Governor McAuliffe’s introduction of his budget, which used the $225 million in savings achieved by expanding Medicaid, in part, to provide the state share of a 2% salary increase for teachers and support personnel and included language to allow local school divisions to participate in the state’s health insurance program.
Economic projections tanked, Senator Puckett’s resignation changed the balance in the Senate, and the House successfully, at least for now, blocked the Medicaid Expansion, which would have freed up General Fund dollars for education.  So the session, which at points had raised hopes, ended “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

One House member, as he left the Capitol yesterday, shared his assessment that education had done well, as the $404.2 million for the rebenchmarking remained in the final budget.  I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but we will still be running our schools on less than we had in 2009.  Our average teacher salary is 37th in the nation, $7,456 behind the national average, and our state per-pupil funding for PreK-12 ranks 39th.  We are the 10th wealthiest state in the nation, and our per-capita state and local taxes as a percent of personal income ranks 46th. 

The General Assembly seems all about balancing the budget and little about support for our public schools.  Virginia can clearly do better, and, as this session ends, we need to prepare to keep up the fight in the 2015 session.
Click here for a detailed report on the budget including funding for each division.

Senator Puckett’s resignation changed the balance of power in the Senate, and the Republicans reorganized the Senate last night.  Click here to see the new Senate Committee assignments.


Friday, June 13, 2014

We Have a Budget

It’s not over until it’s over, but only judicial appointments and the veto session keep the 2014 Special Session I of the General Assembly from being over.

Tumult preceded yesterday’s session, which ended well past midnight.  A botched revenue forecast put the state $1.55 billion behind projections.  Senator Philip Puckett resigned, returning the Senate to Republican control, and Representative Eric Cantor was upset by Tea Party upstart David Brat.

These three events created a perfect storm which led to a very disappointing budget outcome last night. 

Hastened by the anticipated revenue shortfall in the next biennium and the need to pass a budget by June 30 to access the “Rainy Day Fund” to partially offset this shortfall, the General Assembly worked frantically to pass the 2014-2016 biennial budget.  This budget includes a $847.5 million revenue reserve fund and anticipates a $707.5 million withdrawal from the “Rainy Day Fund” to achieve balance.

The good news is that rebenchmarking and VRS funding were not cut.  The bad news is that we lost the teacher and support staff salary increases and the language allowing school division participation in the state health insurance program.

Had Medicaid Expansion been included in the budget, the resulting $225 million in savings could have offset some of the shortfall and consequently have reduced the cuts.

The new Republican Senate majority, empowered by Puckett’s resignation and fearful of Brat-inspired Tea Party primaries, inserted Senator Stanley’s amendment thwarting any effort by the Governor to expand Medicaid without the approval of the General Assembly.

Will the Governor sign the budget, line-item veto this section of the budget, or will he veto the entire budget and send the General Assembly back to work?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If there is no budget by June 30th, will Virginia’s public schools shut down? Part II

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee heard a report from David Rosenberg and Mark Vucci, Senior Attorneys with Legislative Services, regarding what power the Governor would have in the event of a failure on the part of the legislative branch to produce a budget by June 30.

I believe they presented the case most to the advantage of the legislative branch – indicating that the Governor would have no power to spend funds.  Among the “Key Take Aways” was the statement, “In the absence of an appropriations law, the Governor could declare an emergency but moneys will not be available to address the emergency conditions.”

I’m a bit skeptical of this view.  Should the Governor declare an emergency and keep the jails in operation and keep the State Police on duty to protect public safety, would the Supreme Court rule against him?  I think not.

They also offered a very narrow interpretation of Article 10, Section 7, presenting a view that the ”two years and  six months” has already expired.  I’m thinking that this will be subject to the interpretation of the courts.

The one thing that they said that I know to be true is that if a budget is not produced we will be in uncharted waters.

Equally sobering was the assessment from Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown when he was asked how failure to produce a budget might affect Virginia’s bond rating:   “If we go past June 30th it puts us in a different posture with them [bond rating agencies].  If we go past June 30th it will change the perspective from which they view Virginia.”

All this talk of uncharted waters leads me to reject Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” in favor of Allen Ginsberg’s “There is nothing to be learned from history anymore.  We’re in science fiction now.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If there is no budget by June 30, will Virginia’s public schools shut down?

“If there is no budget by June 30, will Virginia’s public schools shut down?” This is the $7 billion dollar a year question. To my knowledge we will be entering uncharted territory.   If a budget is not adopted by July 1, the Governor has said publicly that he will not allow the government to shut down.  His authority to keep the government going will surely be questioned.  I can't find much in the Constitution of Virginia to grant the Governor spending authority beyond December 11, 2014.  However, Code provisions appear to empower the Governor.

The period of July 1 through December 11st is covered by Article X, Section 7:

No money shall be paid out of the State treasury except in pursuance of appropriations made by law; and no such appropriation shall be made which is payable more than two years and six months after the end of the session of the General Assembly at which the law is enacted authorizing the same.

This passage is certainly subject to interpretation.  If the budget bill references two years, is the Constitutional language relevant?  If so,  when does the 30 month span begin?  Delegate Bob Marshall, who is an astute scholar of the Virginia Constitution, asserts that it begins on June 11, 2012, when the General Assembly last amended and the Governor signed the biennial budget bill.   Could this provision, intended to allow the payment of invoices still outstanding, be used to fund the government at the level established by the 2012-14 biennial budget until December 11?

If a 2014-2016 budget is not enacted prior to December 11, our focus shifts to other portions of the law.  The second sentence in Article V, Section 7 reads as follows:

The Governor shall be commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Commonwealth and shall have power to embody such forces to repel invasion, suppress insurrection, and enforce the execution of the laws.

This section of the Code of Virginia is also relevant (§ 44-146.17.): 

(7) Whenever, in the opinion of the Governor, the safety and welfare of the people of the Commonwealth require the exercise of emergency measures due to a threatened or actual disaster, he may declare a state of emergency to exist;

Up to this time conventional wisdom has been that his power would allow the Governor to keep governmental operations related to public safety in operation, such as police protection and continued operation of the jails.  However, the cessation of services such as foster care, support services to the disabled, public hospitals, public education, and road repairs are just a few examples of what could be viewed as an emergency. 

Would the Governor cite "the execution of laws," and, for example, say that the Standards of Quality are laws enabling him to keep the schools running under the funding level of the previous budget?  Would he declare a state of emergency?  In either case, the Attorney General will likely be asked to weigh in, and this would then head to court, as members of the legislative branch would assert that only funds which are appropriated can be spent.

If the court were to side with the Governor, the ruling could take the pressure off of future legislatures to produce budgets on time.  If the court were to side with the legislature, we'd have at least a partial shutdown.  I'm sure the courts would specify that the operation of jails and law enforcement would continue.

The specter of this issue appearing before the court would certainly put great pressure on the General Assembly to act.  We would be in a Constitutional crisis, and the court's ruling might alter the balance of power between the three branches of government.  It would be extremely unwise for the legislature to sit back and take this risk.

School boards could try to keep things going in the short-run with local funding - this may be easier for Alexandria compared with Lee County.  Local governments can pass a budget without having all the cash on hand, and the decisions regarding appropriations obviously will affect the ability of the school board to keep schools going.

We should keep our ears to the ground on this, but if anybody other than a Virginia Supreme Court justice tells you with certainty that they know what will happen, should this issue come their way, take it with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Games Continue

SB 5003 passed the Senate today on a 22-15 vote, and was communicated to the House.  The House referred it to the Appropriations Committee, but did not schedule a meeting of the committee.
The House budget bill, HB 5002, lies dormant in the Senate Finance Committee.

Both chambers adjourned with no future sessions scheduled.  The Senate was told to be on 48 hour notice, and the House was told that they would next meet on the call of the Speaker.
The games continue, and there is no sign of progress on the budget.

What a mess!






Monday, April 7, 2014

No More Games

The Senate Finance Committee reported SB 5003, which includes a number of the amendments offered by Governor McAuliffe in his proposed budget.

If you remember, VEA sought state funding for a 6% salary increase this year, and Senator Puckett and Delegate Chafin carried our amendments.  Unfortunately, neither the Senate nor the House included any salary funding for public school employees in their respective budget bills.  The House offered a 1% increase beginning on July 1, 2015 in conference,  as the regular session ended, but the conferees could not agree on a budget.

When Governor McAuliffe introduced his budget bill, it included 2% for teachers and support personnel and the statewide health insurance option, but this bill was killed by the House Appropriations Committee.

Today the Senate Finance Committee reported its own budget bill (SB 5003).  The Senate included VEA’s top two priorities in their substitute, the 2% salary increase beginning on April 1, 2015, and the local school board option to participate in the state health plan.

The Senate bill includes Marketplace Virginia, which will close the health insurance coverage gap and provide health insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of Virginian’s.
This bill reported on a strong bipartisan 11-3 vote.
The Senate will meet at 11 tomorrow, followed by a meeting of the House at 4.  One never knows for sure, but it is expected that the Senate will pass SB 5003, which will then be communicated to the House.

If the bill goes to conference, the difference between the ensuing conference and where things stood at the regular session’s end is that both chambers will have teacher and support salary funding on the table (1% House/2%Senate), and the Senate will have the statewide health insurance option on the table.  Thanks to your hard work, we are in a better position than we were when the regular session ended in a budget impasse.

Let’s hope the House will request a committee of conference tomorrow and end the games.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

President Gruber and Local Presidents Appear Before the Senate Finance Committee

On April 1, VEA President Meg Gruber was joined by Charlotte Hayer (Richmond), Kimberly Adams (Fairfax), and Don Wilm (Chesterfield) at the Senate Finance Committee to support Governor McAuliffe's budget proposal.  I think you will find Meg's testimony most informative:

Chairman Colgan, Chairman Stosch, committee members, ladies and gentlemen – I am Meg Gruber, President of the Virginia Education Association. I represent teachers and support personnel in all 132 school divisions across Virginia.

I speak in support of SB 5003 and the Governor’s accompanying  amendments, which will provide needed additional funds to public education. Our state per-pupil support for public education ranks 38th, our teacher salary ranks 37th, even though we are the 9th wealthiest state in the nation.

Virginians support better funding for our public schools. This year’s Commonwealth Education Poll revealed that “65% of Virginians say schools do not have enough funds to meet their needs,” and “75% say that the amount of funding affects quality a great deal.” The poll also found that “Virginians are willing to pay more in taxes to support school funding levels.”

As you know, your colleagues in the more numerous legislative body do not agree with Virginians in this regard—and that brings me to the issue at hand. As Joe Flores clearly revealed to you at your November retreat, Medicaid expansion offers a significant opportunity to take pressure off the General Fund by providing funding for indigent care, and the medical care of Department of Corrections inmates, for example. This use of federal funding, with the federal taxpayer dollars paid by Virginians, will free up General Fund dollars for our schools, and this is precisely what we see in Governor McAuliffe’s budget proposal.

As you fulfill your Constitutional obligation to “ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained” there is no more significant variable under your control than our Commonwealth’s ability to attract and retain teachers of high quality. Budget Amendment 78, Item 467 makes a step in the right direction in this regard, and it puts public school employees on equal footing with other employee groups.

For years, VEA has sought the option of participation in the state employee health plan for school divisions. JLARC has estimated that this will save between $44 and $64 million dollars annually. We thank this committee for securing funds for the feasibility study, which was done in preparation for the 2014 session. Senator Norment helped us with a study of this issue in 2007. Amendment 3, Item 81 jump starts this effort, and provides this option to school divisions beginning on July 1, 2015.

We share this committee’s commitment to addressing the needs of students in the underperforming schools in Virginia. Amendment 15, Item 135 increases funding for the extended school year grant program, a wise investment.

Investment in Pre-K Education and in Drop-Out Prevention, too, are wise investments of education funding.  Both will increase our students’ future prospects. Amendment 25, Item 136 provides hold harmless funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative, and Amendment 16, Item 135 increases funding for one of Virginia’s most successful and accountable dropout prevention programs, Jobs for Virginia Graduates. 

I have highlighted just a few of Governor McAulliffe’s amendments, which are reflective of the leadership our Governor has shown in offering his plan to break the budget impasse that serves us so poorly. This budget invests $150 million dollars more in public education than did Senate Bill 30 in the regular session.

From my perspective, SB 5003, which substantially increases Virginia’s investment in public education, and which substantially elevates the quality of healthcare to our citizens most in need, is worthy of your support.