When will state budget be finished?

Published 11:00 am Friday, June 23, 2023

By Michael Hinman

The K-V Dispatch

It won’t be easy, but Virginia will have a state budget finalized before the month is out. At least that is if Frank Ruff has anything to say about it.

And as the leading Republican on the state Senate’s finance committee, Ruff has a lot to say about it.

The current budget impasse “won’t continue,” the senator said, “because everybody wants to get it behind us. Left or right, you don’t want to leave $3.5 billion on the table.”

Virginia typically has its budget finalized in March. But with Democrats in control of the Senate, and Republicans running both the House of Delegates and the governor’s mansion, it’s not much of a surprise the budget was delayed. But the fact summer has officially started and there’s still no budget? That’s unprecedented for the commonwealth.

“This is uncharted territory,” Ruff said. And while politics shouldn’t necessarily create wedges in a budget that funds state resources as well a local schools and municipalities, it’s happening here.

“The fact that the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is in a fight for his life against a much more liberal, Democratic primary, that makes him want to stay out there campaigning,” Ruff said. He’s referring, of course, to George Barker, who’s battling to remain his party’s nominee against Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky.

It’s been more than a decade since Barker had to face anyone in a primary, but redistricting changed that, opening the door for newer voices like Pekarsky, who claims Barker is soft when it comes to gun control and abortion rights.

PRIMARIES WRAP THIS WEEK

Yet, that distraction should be over after Tuesday when voters head to the polls and cast ballots to who should represent their parties in the general election. That could mean a budget is just around the corner, and it couldn’t come soon enough for Karl Carter.

The lack of a state budget has certainly created some headaches for the Buckingham County administrator, who is trying to plan his county’s own budget for the fiscal year that’s supposed to begin July 1. But thankfully, ripples from Richmond take a long time reaching Buckingham, and even if Ruff doesn’t come through with his promise of a new budget, Carter won’t have to shut down the county — especially the schools, which make up a vast majority of county expenditures — anytime soon.

“Most of the time, there’s a two-month lag anyway,” Carter said. “So, when we get money in July, usually that money is for the month of May. And when we get August, that’s actually for the month of June. So, most of the time, those monies we’re getting in after June 30 is for the previous fiscal year.”

That would really give state lawmakers until August to find agreement on a budget before, at least, Buckingham County might be forced to take more drastic measures. But even then, Carter adds, that would mean school districts dipping into the county accounts temporarily, using funds leaders there hope would be replenished before it would need spending on county needs.

The biggest question mark, however, is with county employees themselves — especially those working with the school district. Inflation across the country is up more than 4 percent from the previous year through May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Buckingham County officials had hoped to counter those rising costs with a 7 percent raise.

Instead, taking a guarantee from Richmond that wages will rise at least 5 percent, county officials opted to run with the more conservative number for now with plans to made any adjustments once a state budget is in place.

“That’s still a pretty big number, 5 percent,” said Carter, who said 2 percent raises are more the standard. “Everybody else is dealing with gas prices and the cost of groceries going up. And health insurance as well, So yeah, this will offset some of that.”

State funds have a much lighter impact on Farmville itself. But it doesn’t mean the town isn’t feeling some of the pressure from not having a state budget.

“Approximately 10 percent of our budget is from state funding,” town manager Scott Davis said, in an email. That equates to $2.5 million, with a majority of that money earmarked for highway maintenance.

“Towns maintain their own streets, but are provided maintenance funds to assist in this maintenance,” Davis said.

Another $200,000 is funneled directly into law enforcement.

SETTING HISTORY

In Virginia’s history — dating back to Colonial times — a state budget has never been as late as this one. Sen. Ruff wants to ensure this is all just a blip in history, not a new normal when it comes to governing from Richmond. In his opinion, there is one easy way to fix it: flip the Senate to the GOP.

“If you don’t finish the budget by the deadline the first time, everybody gets all excited because it’s one to three days late,” the senator said. “And then the next step, because it’s a weekly, nobody worries about it until you get to a point like this where you just can’t ignore it.

“So, I’m making the commitment that if I’m chairman of the finance committee next year, we will have a budget. We’re not going to play around games.”