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Va. lawmakers end annual session with increased spending on schools, health care
Unlike last year, when gloomy legislators adopted a budget that slashed more than $4 billion from every area of government, they were greeted by the news that tax revenue has been better than expected, allowing them to reverse some previously adopted cuts.
"Last year was painful," Houck said. "This is year is difficult, but it's a difficulty in agreeing how to spend. It's an entirely different dynamic."
The House and Senate clashed in the session's waning days over how to spend the unexpected money.
The Senate won $75 million more for public schools. Hospitals and doctors faced with possible deep cuts in the state's Medicaid reimbursement rate will also get some relief. And the state will continue to provide some funding, although reduced, for public radio and television, another priority of the state Senate.
The House got $64 million more to replenish the state's rainy-day fund and $46 million to unwind a budget gimmick that requires some businesses to remit their sales tax collections early. Legislators agreed to eliminate a $43.5 million line item to revamp a shuttered prison to house sex predators, as the House urged. Taxes will not rise, and lawmakers agreed that they would add no new fee increases to the budget.
But they approved spending $30 million to help speed the transition of people with severe intellectual disabilities out of state-operated institutions and into community-based care. That was in response to a searing report about the conditions of Virginia's facilities delivered this month by the Department of Justice.
And lawmakers decided that state employees should begin making annual payments to their retirement fund for the first time since 1983. They negated the potential cost savings of the change by agreeing to give employees an offsetting 5 percent pay raise, their first increase in four years.
'Don't increase taxes'
In other areas, the parties also cooperated for major breakthroughs.
With Howell's backing, the legislature agreed to a longtime Democratic priority - a mandate that some companies' health-insurance plans must cover some services for autistic children.
The General Assembly also agreed to require public elementary and middle schools to offer 150 minutes of physical education each week, in an effort to curb childhood obesity.
Other measures include a bill making illegal the possession and distribution of synthetic marijuana, known as spice, and one that will make it easier for people in dating relationships to take out restraining orders against abusive partners.
Delegates said conversation in their chamber was flavored by sentiments of tea party activists.