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Week 4: Spending Your Tax Bills Wisely

Today, Sunday February 8, is a big day in Richmond. At noon the Senate Finance Committee announced its proposed budget; at one the House announced its budget. The announcements were attended by large crowds of advocates and lobbyists, as well as legislators and their staffs.

As a member of the Finance Committee, I can see from the dais the reactions on the faces of onlookers as they figure out if their priorities were funded. Because our state revenues have not risen enough to meet all documented needs, there were many disappointed faces.

The major initiative of the Senate was a three percent raise for state employees and state­supported local employees. We are providing the state share of a one and a half percent increase for teachers which we hope will be enhanced by localities. And for college faculty we provided a two percent increase.

Both parties are in agreement that fairly compensating our employees is an urgent need. Take-­home pay has not increased since 2007. Buying power has decreased seven percent since 2007. We now rank 33rd among the states in average annual pay. Worse, we rank 49th in terms of the state average as a percentage of the private sector average.

The Senate budget also protected public education and recommends specific options for schools that are not keeping up. We also expanded access to higher education by significantly increasing funding for financial aid.

A high priority of mine has been to improve programs for persons with mental illness. Our budget provides permanent supportive housing for 300 people. We are adding two PACT  (Programs of Assertive Community Treatment) teams to reduce hospitalizations and incarcerations. We increased funding to expand child psychiatry and children's crisis response efforts. The total additional spending in the Senate budget for mental health related programs is $102 million! Of course, the McAuliffe Administration initiated most of that increase.

So what happens next on the budget? Over the next few days, staff will do an in-depth analysis of all differences between the Senate and House versions of the budget. Budget conferees will be appointed to reconcile those differences.

For the past several years, I have been a Senate budget conferee. Both Democratic and Republican chairmen have appointed me. I hope to be appointed again this year.

Being a conferee is a lot of work and a huge responsibility. I find myself immersed in the minutiae of the budget. Often I am exhausted and quite cranky. But it a great opportunity to set priorities. And, as the only female conferee, I offer a different perspective.

I hope you agree with our efforts to be responsible with your tax dollars. All of us on the Finance Committee strive to spend it wisely.