Advocacy Guide: Understanding Virginia's Budget Process

The Commonwealth of Virginia has its own version of the U.S. Congress, and it is known as the General Assembly. Like Congress, the General Assembly passes laws during a “Session.” Unlike the FEDERAL Congress, Virginia’s General Assembly Session is very short — 60 days in even years and 45 days in odd years. Why the difference, you ask? The General Assembly writes and passes the plan to fund our state’s operations (this is known as the budget) in even years. Why only every other year? Well, Virginia operates on a two-year budget. Policy and economic experts call this a “Biennial Budget”, and the two years encompassed in that time period is known as a “Biennium.” Why is it important to know these terms? General Assembly Members, policy experts, and the media use this terminology. As such, so will I. But remember this: Biennium = the two years in which a budget is in effect.

Like everything else in Virginia Politics, the budget process appears complicated, but is actually fairly simple to understand. Creating the budget always begins with the Governor --even though he is not a member of the General Assembly-- who’s administration puts together and proposes a spending plan for the Biennium. This proposal is not the final budget that is actually adopted, but it does reflect the Governor’s priorities. So if education is important to a Governor, then you’ll see increased funds for Virginia’s K-12 and higher education systems within the proposal.

The second step involves what are known as the “money committees.” The money committees are responsible for crafting their own biennial budgets that will be voted on by their respective chamber (House of Delegates and the Senate). The money committee in the House is called the “Appropriations Committee” and the Senate version is called the “Finance Committee.” Both committees work off the Governor’s biennium budget proposal, but they will amend it in various ways to craft their own version. This is important because Appropriations and Finance always prioritize funding differently. The money committees receive input from experts, lobbyists, and other General Assembly Members during the budget creation process. The money committees also rely on their subcommittees (focus groups) to work out details of various budget implications. For example, the House and Senate money committees both have subcommittees focused on education issues.

Once they finalize their versions of the budget, the money committees publicly present them in a ceremonial fashion on the Sunday before crossover (the time of session when bills passed by the House go to the Senate and vice-versa). The budgets assume the form of bills that go to the floor of each chamber for debate and a vote. Budget bills are the only legislation that is voted on in the chamber of origin after crossover. Once passed, they crossover to the other body where they will be immediately rejected. This part of the process seems like a waste of time (maybe it is), but both bodies want the opportunity to promote their respective priorities for the biennium. Since the literal funding of the Commonwealth is at stake, the money committees are forced to create a “conference” committee-- a new committee made up of members from both the House of Delegates and the Senate-- that is responsible for working out the differences. Obviously, being chosen as a budget conferee by the leadership of your chamber is a position of great importance and influence.

After the conference committee irons out an agreement, a new budget bill is sent to both chambers. This time both budget bills possess the same language, and it is generally understood that both chambers will vote to approve them. This happens on the last day of Session and is usually the final action of the General Assembly. In 2018, the conference committee could not work out an agreed-upon budget and the regular Session adjourned without passing a budget. So they reconvened in April and ultimately passed a budget in early May. Without a budget, the Virginia Government shuts down on July 1st.    

After the General Assembly passes a budget, the Governor comes back into play. The Governor can allow the budget to go into effect by signing it, or he can send it back to the General Assembly with changes. The General Assembly votes on those changes six weeks after regular Session ends during what is known as the “Reconvened Session” or “Veto Session.” At this point, the GA leaders and the Governor have worked through their differences enough to agree on a budget. So it is rare for a General Assembly to reject a budget during reconvened session

Okay, I know that was a lot. So here’s a great graphic for tl;dr and visual learners…

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So why is there so much focus on a budget in an odd year if one is already in effect?  Well, odd years are when the General Assembly gives the budget a tune-up. The revenue the state collects from taxes, bonds, etc. is constantly changing. The problem with a biennial budget is that the state may possess more or less spending power than the previous year. More revenue is known as a “surplus” and less revenue is known as a “shortfall.” Our budget must be adaptable in case of shifts one way or another. So if Virginia has a surplus, the General Assembly can spend more money on programs and services that, ideally, benefit all Virginians such as healthcare, infrastructure, and education. Conversely, a shortfall may result in de-funding these same public goods. Funding cuts can have drastic negative impacts for Virginians, as is the case with our skyrocketing tuition costs (the state used to fund 70% of the cost of college but now it barely funds 30%). Even though the Session is shorter in odd years, the budget process is virtually the same.

Why is this information important to advocates? Short answer: Budgets are a reflection of priorities. General Assembly members cannot truly call themselves a champion of any cause unless they fight tirelessly for funding. “How are you going to pay for that?” is a phrase echoed from the mouth of elected leaders from both sides of the aisle. At the end of the day, it’s not the constituents’ job to find the money to address our most pressing issues. That’s a responsibility reserved for those we elect. So in 2019-- an election year for every single member of the General Assembly-- let’s ask our candidates for more than lip service. Let’s use this election to hold our leaders accountable by demanding they take a pledge to put our money where their mouth is.     

About the Author

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Tim Cywinski is the Director of Engagement at Virginia21. He is responsible for coordinating civic action among Virginia21 members, managing the organization's leadership program and election activity, creating civic-education content, and forging relationships with the press and civic partners. In addition to Virginia21, Tim is also a member of the Urban League of Greater Richmond Young Professionals' civic engagement committee and serves as a guest trainer of political communications for the Front Line Leader's Academy. He previously worked as an organizer and Project Manager for the National Education Association's "Degrees not Debt" campaign in Arizona and has held numerous political operative positions in national, state, and local election campaigns.  In addition to his full-time position, Tim presents training on advocacy, strategic communications, and lobbying to various audiences and civic organizations around the Commonwealth and D.C. Tim earned a bachelor’s in Political Science from Roanoke College and now resides in Richmond, VA. In his free time, Tim enjoys playing kickball, writing, and forcing friends to attend his karaoke “concerts”.