As May gives way to June, the pressure is on for Virginia lawmakers to enact a state budget, the absence of which has created a lot of uncertainty for local boards and departments that rely on state funding.
Add to that an expected revenue shortfall of about $300 million this current fiscal year, and the situation gets all the more urgent.
Both the Washington County and Bristol, Virginia school boards have planned multiple funding scenarios during their budget sessions, but it is difficult to anticipate how much money will be handed down from the state to the local boards, superintendents said.
And in Washington County, one of those scenarios would mean the termination of 14 jobs, said county schools Superintendent Brian Ratliff.
“We’re concerned about the finalized budget,” he said. “And we’re certainly waiting for the local Board of Supervisors to be able to act on the final budget as well.”
Supervisors tentatively approved level-funding the School Board for 2014-15 to the levels of the current year, with the caveat that after the state budget is approved, board members can revisit it.
“I think we’re left with no other option than to take the worst-case scenario” in terms of funding, Ratliff said.
In Bristol, Virginia, it has already been a tight budget year, said Superintendent Mark Lineburg.
“It’s uncharted waters for the schools” for things to be so unknown in terms of state funding, he said. “I hate that the schools are in the middle of this whole thing.”
Both school systems are proceeding as though the budget was set to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget before leaving office.
The fight within the state legislature about expanding Medicaid is, in many ways, hindering the budget process. Supporters of expansion say there’s federal money waiting to help people qualify for Medicaid who currently wouldn’t or who don’t make enough money for the Affordable Care Act to be of much assistance. Opponents say they don’t want federal money that will dry up or come with strings attached.
Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Galax, said he favors removing the Medicaid piece from the budget, passing the budget and then revisiting the Medicaid issue.
“I think if the governor [Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat] and the other side realize that we need to debate this [Medicaid] policy issue before we fund it through the budget, and decouple it from it, I think it’s within a day’s time that we’ll pass it,” he said. “We always debate the policy issue, then fund. This was a reverse way of approaching it, and it’s tied the budget up.”
Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Lebanon, said he’s not in favor of splitting the budget and Medicaid. He said he feels that happened last year, and then everyone left Richmond and nothing happened.
“The Medicaid piece could help the shortfall. If we took the federal money, and then worked into the budget the payment for the Medicaid expansion, plus other medical expense that we’d have money to do, it frees up money in other areas of the budget,” he said. “But in all honesty, I don’t look for that to happen.”
Delegate Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, said in years past, the state has gotten to this point — this late in the game — and managed to pass a budget.
“It’s absolutely crucial to all of the commonwealth of Virginia’s operations, particularly public safety and the correctional system, not to mention public education,” he said. “You just don’t want to be writing IOUs, that’s not the way state government needs to run ... the time is now.”
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who supports Medicaid expansion, told a group of community leaders earlier this week that a budget will be passed.
“One of the things we’re wrestling with right now in Richmond ... is we need a budget in Virginia,” he said to applause. “I know politicians always make promises, but we’re going to have a budget on July 1, so rest easy.”