38% of the General Fund portion of the FY20-22 budget was directed to education
Source: Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, Governor Northam's Proposed Amendments to FY 2020 of the 2018-2020 Biennial Budget and the Proposed Biennial Budget for the 2020-2022 Biennium
Two-year budgets are passed by the General Assembly in even-numbered years. The budgets are amended in odd-numbered years with a "caboose bill" to adjust for changes in revenue and priorities. Governors are elected in odd-numbered years, so when they take office the General Assembly is considering a budget prepared by their predecessor. Each governor gets to prepare just one two-year budget that he or she will be able to implement during their term, then prepare a second two-year budget for their successor to implement.
The governor's proposed budget submitted to the 2020 General Assembly was 20% larger than the 2018-20 budget. The budget prepared by Gov. Terry McAuliffe for the 2018-2020 biennium totalled $116 billion.1
A common description of state budgets is that the priorities are to educate, medicate, and incarcerate. State Senator John H. Chichester, president pro tem of the Virginia State Senate, stated in a 2003 speech to the Virginia Foundation for Research and Economic Education:2
In the 2018-19 budget, over $19 million annually was appropriated for the Office of Education and over $17 million for the Office of Health and Human Resources. Virginia's #3 priority was transportation rather than incarceration. The budget included around $8 million that was allocated to the Office of Transportation and just roughly $3 million annually for the Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.3
The budget bill is always numbered House Bill 30 and Senate Bill 30. The spending proposed for the next two years by the governor has increased steadily:4
2010 - $77 billion
2012 - $86 billion
2014 - $97 billion
2016 - $109 billion
2018 - $116 billion
2020 - $139 billion
The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 led to extraordinary budget changes within just a month. Governor Ralph Northam declared a public health emergency March 12, the same day the General Assembly passed a $135 billion biennial budget. State finance officials calculated that the pandemic would reduce General Fund revenues by $1 billion in the last months of the FY19-20 fiscal year ending on June 30, 2020, and another $1 billion in the next fiscal year.
Between the time the legislature completed its normal session and the start of the regularly-scheduled veto session on April 22, the governor proposed 180 amendments to the budget. He chose to "unallot" most of the funding increases included in the FY20-22 budget. The unallotting process required state agencies to get specific approval from the General Assembly before they could spend the appropriated-but-not-allotted funding.
The governor also floated the idea that he should be granted authority to reduce spending by more than 15%, the limit allowed withoout specific approval by the General Assembly. Because the economic situation was so unusual, he also suggested delaying the inevitable revenue reforecast, which was required one tax collections dropped 1% below what had been budgeted the previous fiscal year. Delay would allow more time to assess the problems and opportunities to mitigate them. Though the governor was a Democrat, and Democratic leaders controlled both chambers, the legislators were unwilling to shift that decisionmaking power to the executive branch.5
The governor traditionally proposes a "caboose bill" to amend the budget at the end of the fiscal year. In April 2020, Gov. Northam used the caboose bill to offset the decline in revenues at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year. The budget had proposed depositing over $600 million in the Revenue Reserve Fund, an optional reserve separate from the Revenue Stabilization Fund ("Rainy Day Fund"). Other savings, such as freezing hires of new personnel, were matched by Federal payments authorized in response to the pandemic. To access Federal contributions for COVID-19 response, the General Assembly approved a budget amendment in April, 2020 to spend $50 million as the state's required matching funds.6
Budget amendments can also be used to propose significant policy initiatives. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic exploded just after the General Assembly's standard 2020 session had completed work. Governor Northam reacted to the risks of social interaction by proposing, in a budget amendment, to change the date of local elections scheduled for May 5 to align with state elections on November 3. Absentee voting had already begun and candidates were nearing the end of their campaigns when the legislature met on April 22 to consider the governor's vetoes and budget amendments.
Governor Northam vetoed only one bill that session. The legislators had passed HB 119 establishing that plant-based liquids could not be labeled as soy "milk," almond "milk," etc. The veto was upheld, but the State Senate refused to approve the amendment to delay the May vote. Cancelling the May vote would have required discarding absentee ballots which voters had already submitted. Though the House of Delegates approved the delay in a close vote, the State Senate chose not to vote on the proposal and thus blocked the amendment for going into effect. 7