Increases in budget revenues as a result of federal tax changes and the ability to tax sales on goods purchased on the internet put Virginia in an unusual position to increase its budgeted funds mid-year of a biennial budget while at the same time providing many taxpayers with refunds. As the fall elections approach the actions on the state budget will receive many different “spins.” Certainly taxpayers like getting money refunded. At the same time they recognize when programs to meet needs are underfunded, they may over a period of time become even more underfunded. It is more than mathematics and accounting to approve a budget when revenues have increased—it is also very much an expression of values on the part of decision makers.
An example of values affecting budgetary decisions came during the Great Recession of 2008. State revenues dipped at the greatest rate in modern times just as many businesses faltered and failed. A great bail-out went to businesses from the federal government as did major funding to state government. The feds did not match the private losses, but they did provide relief for some greater cuts for programs like education. Only now has the Virginia economy recovered such that the funding of education today is exceeding that of pre-2008 levels.
Beyond simply funding programs and services with more money next year than last year are the equity issues involved in distributing money across programs. My trip to Prince Edward County as I described in my column last week reminded me just how inequitable funding can be. There was no pretense of equity among black and white schools. The whites went to a brick school that was modern for its time; the black children went to school in a tar-paper shanty. With many federal court decisions we have gotten beyond the inequities of segregated services and programs, but inequities still exist.
The budget presented to the General Assembly by Governor Ralph Northam represented the greatest attempt at resolving equity issues that I have seen. Funding for schools was increased but with those who had the greatest needs receiving the most money. Programs for students with special needs were enhanced as was funding for historically black institutions of higher education. The Governor found himself with a major problem pushing his agenda as he got himself in political hot water for his behavior many years ago. Whatever way that situation is resolved, it need not take attention from the basic problem of increasing equity among school divisions, mental health programs and criminal justice programs.
There is ample evidence gleaned from numerous studies that document inequities that exist in the state’s budget. These facts will be manipulated among candidates this election season to gain advantage, but candidates need to acknowledge that inequities exist and must be dealt with fairly. I understand that most regions feel that they do not get a fair shake. There are metrics that can be used to find the inequities; once resolved the state will be stronger because of it.