Editorial: A budget deal, barely

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Virginia has a budget, though the process that delivered it wasn’t without numerous twists and turns. That’s to be expected given that the General Assembly control is divided between a Republican-led House and a Democratic-led Senate.

The final curves came last week when Glenn Youngkin proposed 38 amendments to the bipartisan agreement carefully negotiated between legislative leaders. Those proposals didn’t scuttle the deal, thankfully, and should result in a spending plan that advances priorities of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Virginia lawmakers convened in Richmond this year in an enviable, but uncertain position. The commonwealth had recorded its largest surplus in history, a portion of which all agreed should be returned to taxpayers.

But with inflation rising, COVID still circulating and the future murky, caution was expected to be the watchword. After all, lawmakers can make adjustments to the budget next year, so it made sense to be conservative in how to utilize Virginia’s rare financial windfall.

The General Assembly passed, and the governor on Tuesday signed, a deal that will provide considerable help to Virginia families through a larger standard deduction and one-time rebate payments. It also eliminates the state’s 1.5% portion of the grocery tax but let stand the 1% local option.

The governor was content to leave untouched those major provisions, which were central to the two-year, $165 billion budget. However he did again propose through amendment a three-month suspension of the gas tax — an issue he pushed repeatedly this year — despite admitting in March that consumers might not see the benefit.

While everyone is dealing with pain at the pumps, draining transportation revenue to benefit oil companies and out-of-state motorists would have been an error. Lawmakers were right to turn that aside on Friday, though Youngkin couldn’t resist using his Tuesday budget signing ceremony to criticize Democrats for doing so.

That struck a sour note when Youngkin could have easily celebrated the budget for its many compromises: increased teacher pay and education spending, substantial investments in mental health services and public safety, a tax reduction for military retirement pay and a larger earned income tax credit.

Some of Youngkin’s proposed amendments similarly showed his determination to stir the political pot despite the risk doing so would undermine the bipartisan spirit that brokered the budget deal.

He proposed ending state Medicaid coverage for abortions in cases of “incapacitating” physical or mental fetal deformities, a move that would limit access to reproductive care for low-income women. That passed the House but fell in the Senate by one vote.

Lawmakers backed his “lab schools” proposal — a signature campaign issue — with $100 million but the governor still proposed taking money from public schools to increase the coffers for that project. The Senate blocked that, but an amendment to expand the educational institutions eligible to create lab schools passed by way of a tie-breaking vote by Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears.

And the governor proposed narrowing a measure approved in 2020 that awarded earned sentence credits to some state inmates, despite extensive negotiation preceding that bill to ensure the credits would only count toward non-violent offenses. Three Democrats who voted for that legislation in 2020 crossed sides to approve Youngkin’s amendment.

Were these measures so important that they were worth threatening the larger spending agreement? For the governor, it would seem so. And, if his budget signing ceremony is any indication, Youngkin will continue to castigate Democrats even when they work with their Republican counterparts to find common ground.

This give and take — between the legislative and executive, between those on opposite sides of the aisle — is how the system works. In this case, the system worked well enough to give Virginia a budget before the start of the new fiscal year next week.

And it happened because of the strong working relationships between members of the legislature, who know that if concession only invites contempt, there’s no incentive to give an inch.