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February 28, 2019

Virginia’s Revised Budget Makes Some Modest Steps Toward Dismantling Barriers Facing Virginians of Color

State budgets can advance equity or further entrench barriers to opportunity for people of color that have been systematically shaped through policy decisions.

Every new investment, funding cut, and change in policy language represents a decision about values. 

Following up on the racial equity implications of previous budget proposals, below we take a racial equity lens to the final budget decisions that were recently approved by the General Assembly (GA). While the negotiated tax deal left out many people of color, some progress was made in the budget to help address the disparate impacts of previous policy decisions. Far more needs to be done – both in future legislative sessions and in monitoring the implementation of these key programs to make sure that they advance racial equity rather than inscribe barriers. Yet even incremental progress can make concrete improvements in the lives of Virginia families.  

Revised budget retains some investments in affordable housing and eviction defense

Racial discrimination in housing was official public policy for much of the 20th century, and this has consequences for today. Families of color in Virginia continue to be less likely than white families to own their homes, are more likely to be paying more than they can afford for housing, and are more likely to face eviction even after controlling for household income.

The introduced budget proposal included some modest investments to address the lack of affordable housing and high rates of evictions for Virginia’s communities of color. Unfortunately, the House eliminated the proposed $19 million in additional support that was intended for the Housing Trust Fund, which is primarily used to increase access to affordable homeownership and rental housing. The Senate proposed cutting it to $3 million.

The GA’s budget provides $3 million in proposed additional support for the Housing Trust Fund, compared to $19 million proposed in the introduced budget.

To help address the eviction epidemic, the House eliminated the $2.6 million of funding that was provided for eviction defense while the Senate cut it to $1.3 million and broadened its potential use. The Senate also removed $104,050 in funding for an eviction diversion pilot.

The GA’s budget provides $1.3 million in legal aid funding for eviction defense – half of the introduced proposal – and includes the proposed $104,050 in funding for an eviction diversion pilot.

Key investments made in mental health; funding for incarcerated population

Funding solutions to remedy racial disparities in health care access and quality should be a priority for Virginia’s legislators.

Families that can’t easily access health care, such as families without health coverage, may have more trouble vaccinating their children. Immigrant families who have limited options for health insurance, and even less opportunities to access affordable health coverage, may be particularly impacted. Over 55 percent of uninsured children in Virginia are children of color. Despite efforts to address this barrier, the House and Senate budgets struck the proposal of nearly $1.5 million of funding for vaccines for children administered at local health departments.

Funding for vaccines was not included in the GA’s budget following the omission of funding in both House and Senate versions.

Mental health disparities exist throughout our health and criminal justice systems. We know that Latinx and Black individuals are less likely to receive adequate mental health care leaving them at particular risk of entering one of the state-run mental health facilities or the criminal justice system.

Black individuals are treated at state mental health facilities at a higher rate than any other racial group. While the introduced and House budgets included $7.9 million for additional staff in state-run mental facilities, the Senate budget proposal decreased this funding by $1.5 million.

The GA budget included $7.2 million of additional funding for staffing at state mental health facilities, falling short of the $7.9 million mark proposed in the governor’s and House budgets.

State hospitals are consistently at over 120 percent of staffed bed capacity. As one of our vital supports of treating mental health crises, this could leave more people of color at risk of inadequate care during their time of need.

Untreated mental health issues can sometimes lead to difficult interactions with the public and law enforcement. Black individuals are less likely than white peers to receive psychiatric evaluations when accused of a crime and less likely to receive mental health services when incarcerated. The House budget stripped the $2.5 million to continue and expand a pilot program for inmates with mental health concerns, which would leave many Black and Latinx inmates behind.  

The full $2.5 million to continue the pilot program for inmates with mental health concerns was included in the GA budget. However, these funds can only be used to continue the program where they are currently available and will not be expanded to other sites, as initially proposed.

The Senate and House budgets invested an additional $3 million for implementation of electronic health records in correctional facilities beyond the administration’s introduced budget of $3.5 million (Legal Aid Justice Center recently won a lawsuit against the state to force improvements in health care at Fluvanna women’s correctional center.) Accurate health records can lead to improved health services in the justice system which will help all inmates, but particularly Black individuals who are overrepresented in our prisons.

The GA budget included an additional $3 million for implementation of electronic health records in correctional facilities for a total of $6.5 million.

The Senate budget included an additional $6.8 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain physicians and mental health professionals – in turn leveraging an additional $15.6 million federal match.This will likely increase the number of providers willing to accept Medicaid patients. We know that a large share of people on Medicaid in Virginia are people of color, and improving access to these vital services provides more equitable access to health care.

The GA budget includes the Senate’s proposal and the House’s proposal related to certain hospitals, investing $8.4 million into increasing Medicai reimbursement rates for certain physicians, mental health professionals, and at designated hospitals serving rural residents.

Partial progress achieved for Virginia’s At-Risk Add-On and other K-12 Investments

For K-12, one of the most important decisions in terms of equity was proposed changes to Virginia’s At-Risk Add-On program. The governor proposed a $35 million increase (in lottery revenues) in Virginia’s supplemental aid to school divisions with high concentrations of poverty to provide students with needed programs and services like counseling, drop-out prevention, and college access programs, increasing the additional aid up to 1-16 percent more per student eligible for free lunch. This amount still lags national comparisons where most states provide every eligible student 20-25 percent more. These funds are needed to reduce the inequity of the state’s school funding distribution. Virginia’s school funding is backwards – spending less per student (local, state, and federal combined) in our highest poverty communities than our lowest poverty ones.

The House eliminated this proposed increase, instead shifting much of the funds into the Lottery Per Pupil Allocation (Lottery PPA), another supplemental funding stream for schools. The key difference is that these funds are not directed to schools with the highest child poverty, instead allocated mostly based upon enrollment. Meanwhile, the Senate version partially funded the governor’s proposal including approximately two-thirds of the investment ($21 million).

The GA budget partially funds the increase to the At-Risk Add-On program increasing the additional aid to 1-16 percent more per student eligible for free lunch in FY20, yet providing a smaller increase in FY19. The overall change grows the program by $25 million compared to the $35 million that was initially proposed.

The governor proposed a three-year phase-in to achieve the desired ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students. The House budget took out the commitment for future years, but included the full investment of $36 million to increase counselors in Virginia schools. The Senate proposal only included one-third of these funds ($12 million) for the state share of an additional 250 counselor positions. We know that students from low-wealth backgrounds are significantly more likely to experience trauma and struggle navigating school environments. Counselors play a crucial role in supporting students and diverting them from the school to prison pipeline – a track that is all too familiar to Black families here in the commonwealth given the over-referral of students of color to law enforcement.

The GA budget includes $12 million to make smaller improvements to school counselor staffing standards of one counselor for every 455 students in elementary schools, 370 students in middle schools, and 325 students in high schools.

The governor’s proposed budget invested state funds to cover the costs of an expiring federal grant that extended Virginia’s state preschool program (VPI) to serve an additional 13,000 four-year olds living in low-income households. The House eliminated state funds for continuing the grant program, while the Senate proposal included about three-quarters of the funding ($7.3 million).

The GA budget includes $6.1 million to partially fund continuing VPI + grants, below the $9.7 million included in the introduced budget and the $7.3 million in the Senate proposal.

Improvements made to need-based financial aid and college affordability

The introduced budget included $15.5 million for need-based financial aid. Virginia’s inadequate investment in public colleges and universities over the last decade has contributed to rising tuition prices, often leaving students with little choice but to take on more debt or give up on their dreams of going to college. The problem is especially serious for Black, Latinx, and low-income students. In 2017, the average tuition and fees at a public four-year university accounted for 16 percent of the median household income for white Virginia families, and 12 percent for Asian families, both below the state average of 17 percent for all families. Meanwhile, it accounted for 25 percent of median household income for Black families and 19 percent for Latinx families.

The House budget did not include this funding for need-based financial aid, instead proposing $45.7 million distributed to colleges and universities if they keep tuition and fees at 2018-2019 levels for the next school year. The Senate proposal mirrored the introduced budget.

The GA budget includes both investments in need-based financial aid ($15.5 million) and overall college affordability ($57.5 million) distributed to colleges and universities to maintain tuition levels. The amount going to colleges and universities exceeds the amount initially proposed by the House.

Cash assistance for low-income families receives a modest boost using TANF funds

The Senate proposed using some of Virginia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fund surplus to raise cash assistance levels for Virginia’s lowest-income children and their parents by 5 percent. This was a step in the right direction – toward making up for the erosion of benefits since 1996 and providing resources for low-income families with children to meet their basic needs, including rent, clothing, and school supplies – and would particularly help Black families who face barriers such as job discrimination to getting well-paying jobs.

The GA’s budget includes the 5 percent increase in TANF benefits, funded primarily with $3.2 million of the TANF fund surplus.

Legislators eliminate resources to make sure everyone is counted in the Census

Both the Senate and House eliminated the modest $1.5 million that was included in the introduced budget for Census outreach. The federal government isn’t doing their part in terms of Census outreach this time around, and an undercount would have major implications for equal representation and federal funding that helps boost low-income communities, particularly communities of color.

The GA’s budget eliminated the Census outreach funding.

Modest gains realized for ensuring smooth elections

Access to the ballot box has been central to so many civil rights struggles in the United States because it is fundamental to accessing and protecting all other rights.The introduced budget included a $607,500 boost to training for local election registrars to help avoid and eliminate problems at the ballot box. The Senate proposed cutting about one-third of that funding.

The GA budget, like the Senate, provides $405,000 to boost training for local election registrars, compared to a proposed $607,500 in the introduced budget.

The introduced budget included $5.9 million in funding to reimburse local governments for the costs of holding presidential primaries. The Senate eliminated this funding and proposed delaying this reimbursement until the next biennial budget, which may create challenges for more cash-strapped cities and counties.  

The GA’s budget doesn’t include the $5.8 million in funding to reimburse local governments for the costs of holding presidential primaries, instead deferring until the next biennium. The GA budget does retain a modest $147,038 for state department of elections activities in preparation for the primaries.

All of these choices will have an impact

Budgets reflect priorities. Choices that were made in the General Assembly’s budget will have profound impacts on all of our communities, and targeted cuts or investments for low-wealth communities of color may be felt the most. It is imperative that we evaluate the impacts of our past decisions as well as the choices made today – beyond the cost to the state to include how they will either advance racial equity or reinforce barriers to opportunity.

Budget & Revenue

The Commonwealth Institute

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