Virginia lawmakers weigh a $500 bonus for cops, expanded eviction protections and a lifeline for struggling schools

Virginia lawmakers weigh a $500 bonus for cops, expanded eviction protections and a lifeline for struggling schools
Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, left, chairman of the House Appropriations committee, confers with Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, right, as the Virginia House of Delegates begins their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch) (Source: Virginia Mercury)

House and Senate budget writers presented their proposed amendments to Gov. Ralph Northam’s retooled spending plan Friday. Here’s a first look at where the two chambers landed on funding for schools, criminal justice reform, evictions and past-due utility bills.

The legislation is on its way to the floor of each chamber for an initial vote then lawmakers from the House and Senate will meet to work out the differences between their proposals.

Expungements, body cameras and a $500 bonus for police officers

Both chambers set aside millions to pay for a range of police reforms they’re pursuing, but the amounts reflect their diverging priorities and approaches.

The House budgeted nearly $18 million for its legislative package, much of it to cover the cost of a dramatic expansion of the state’s expungement laws that would automatically seal many criminal records after eight years — something Democrats in the chamber say they hope will make it easier for people convicted of crimes to rebuild their lives.

The Senate, which has rejected the prospect of automatic expungements and often (though not always) taken a more conservative approach to their reforms, budgeted less than half that amount for its own package of bills: $8 million, the bulk of it going to expand the use of body cameras in the state.

Members of the Senate did, however, find funding to send a friendly message to police officers: $500 cash bonuses at a total cost of $18.4 million.

As Democratic lawmakers advanced their police reform agenda over the past month, law enforcement groups and Republicans have often warned that their proposed bills would be interpreted by police as a demoralizing rebuke of their profession. Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said the bonuses are a way to show support for the profession while moving forward with reform.

The House included no such appropriation in their proposal and so far there’s been no word on what members think about the idea. But Democratic leaders in both chambers have strongly objected to any suggestions that they back protesters' calls to defund the police — a rallying cry GOP lawmakers have been eager to link them to after a failed attempt to cut state aid to local police by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas.

House lawmakers Friday axed language in a bill proposed by the Senate that proposed limiting state funding to law enforcement agencies that fail to obtain professional accreditation or participate in mandatory data collection program.

“I don’t want the Virginia public to believe we want to cut police funding,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, who serves as vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

A lifeline for struggling schools

Proposed state education spending has changed dramatically since the end of the 2020 session, when Democratic lawmakers proudly announced they had restored it to pre-2008 levels. But amid growing financial concerns from Virginia’s public schools, both the House and Senate budgets include millions of dollars to help K-12 education weather the pandemic.

Spending plans from both chambers include roughly $95.2 million for public schools in fiscal year 2021 to offset an expected decline in state sales tax revenue — one percent of which flows to local school divisions as basic state aid. The one-time funding will come from profits generated by “gray machines,” or electronic skill games, which were banned at the end of the 2020 session but granted a temporary reprieve when Gov. Ralph Northam proposed taxing them to raise money for a coronavirus relief fund.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.