Amended Virginia budget sees education cuts, transportation plan freezes

Colleges may still be online-only this fall, free community college plans are on hold, and Virginia would not adopt a new six-year construction plan this spring under the amended state budget proposal.

Gov. Ralph Northam released specific amendments Monday, which included a provision to allow tuition assistance grants to continue for students at schools that require online classes, rather than in-person classes, this fall if needed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At next week’s reconvened session of the General Assembly, the new budget would cut proposed increases in financial aid funding for George Mason University, James Madison University and other colleges, as well as cuts to new funding for the University of Mary Washington’s Fredericksburg Pipeline Initiative.

And a program that would have provided for free community college for some students would lose $71 million in funding.

Northam is proposing to remove about $80 million, which was intended to specifically limit college tuition increases as part of a wide-ranging spending freeze, and would allow colleges to reduce their recovery rates for indirect costs this school year, given the loss of dorm, parking and dining revenue.

The frozen state funds would only be restored if there is a significant economic turnaround, or money is otherwise found in the two-year budget, which is not expected at this point.

Northam also asked for the authority to withhold more than 15% of allocated funds if the budget falls even shorter than already projected, and for permission for the Virginia Lottery to reduce some payouts to schools if lottery revenues fall short of expectations.

Raises for teachers and other state or state-supported workers were already contingent on budget forecasts, so Northam is not recommending any changes. But the raises approved by the General Assembly in March may not happen.

When the full economic picture becomes clearer, a new revenue forecast will be made, and it could lead to additional budget changes.

Northam also proposed significant short-term borrowing authority of up to $500 million for the state and $250 million for localities, which could cover any cash flow issues.

Under other budget amendments, the state would not adopt a new six-year transportation plan until after the budget re-forecast, since even with a new transportation funding bill passed this year, there could be significant decreases in funding available from sources such as sales tax.

The current six-year plan approved last year would remain as a placeholder, and it could be in place for as much as an extra year.

However, the Commonwealth Transportation Board would get new authority to move money around to “maintain and continue core operations and services threatened by revenue reductions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Northam proposed funding and language to address concerns about the impact of Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel construction on threatened birds as well.

In addition, the budget amendments would eliminate things such as new adult dental coverage under Medicaid, and some mental health and disability programs.

Among other health-related amendments, the new amended budget would allow state funding for nonhormonal long-acting reversible contraceptives, in addition to hormonal versions.

The amended budget would also put off any spending to add more developmental disability waiver slots, eliminate a new provision for overtime for personal care attendants, and eliminate additional funding to expand behavioral health services.

The governor also proposed waivers from licensing and inspection requirements for child care programs for children of essential workers that operate during the pandemic.

Northam asked lawmakers to waive interest on state tax payments made by June 1, a month after the May 1 filing deadline.

And, he wants the Department of Corrections to be able to release prisoners with less than one year to their release date or put them on probation or house arrest (as long as they were not convicted of a Class 1 felony or sexually violent felony, and the release will help with health, safety and welfare).

In spending changes, prisons would not get new funding for electronic health records or to expand the use of university health care systems to treat prisoners.

Another change would allow all public bodies to hold regular meetings fully online during the COVID-19 health emergency to address issues beyond emergency measures.

Northam asked to delay a report on collective bargaining for state workers from this November to next November, and there are a number of smaller cuts for things, such as parks in Fairfax County or Alexandria cultural initiatives.

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