After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, General Assembly budget negotiators revealed details of a deal in a Thursday briefing with only reporters from The Washington Post and The Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to their reporting, the deal includes significant wins for both sides, including a major increase of the standard deduction but no gas tax holiday.
The private budget negotiations and the exclusive briefing are drawing criticism from Virginia reporters.
“Apparently the Virginia budget deal is happening on a need-to-know basis and only two media outlets need to know,” Virginia Mercury reporter Graham Moomaw tweeted.
“A small group of people – with heavy lobbyist influence – making decisions in secret, details of which will be released over Memorial Day weekend. Some might call that a sham,” Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Patrick Wilson replied.
House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) told The Virginia Star Friday that most reporters didn’t seem interested.
He said, “They called me every other day like that, [Times-Dispatch reporter] Michael Martz did, and then [Senate Finance Chair] Janet Howell, she called [Post reporter] Laura Vozzella because she was calling her right along. So, you know, we didn’t know anyone else was interested, so we told them, ‘Come on down, and we’ll just give you a slight briefing and go from there.'”
Some Legislators Still in the Dark
Delegate Rob Bloxom (R-Accomack) was one of the negotiators. He said that while most negotiators knew the areas where compromise was needed, that was dependent on the amount of revenue available, which was in turn affected by tax relief proposals. Bloxom said Knight and Howell hashed that out among themselves, but that Knight checked in regularly with the other House negotiators.
“He was talking to us along the way, too. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was going on,” Bloxom said Friday. “Once I knew the revenues, then everything fell into place.”
Bloxom signed off on the conference committee report on the deal on Thursday, before The Post and The Times-Dispatch were briefed. But some legislators weren’t aware of the details before the media, and still haven’t been briefed.
“Currently I have had no briefings from anyone on the budget. I am reading in the Post and Times about what the budget terms contain at this time. I understand legislators will have access to the budget sometime Sunday,” freshman Delegate Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) told The Star on Friday afternoon.
“As a legislator, it is frustrating to read about what is in the budget for the first time through media outlets. However, I have full faith in the GOP leadership on the budget committee that whatever the budget contains will have protected the Republican priorities to reduce taxes to Virginians as much as possible and get our record surpluses back to Virginia taxpayers,” Anderson said.
Knight told The Star, “This is how we’ve always seemed to have done it. What we do is, we go and we brief the conferees, and then we brief the leadership. And then we know it’s going to get out.”
He said, “So we go ahead and we announce we have a budget. We always, you know, put some of this stuff out there, and then we brief the folks there. So that’s how it is. But they’re freshmen, they’ve never been through this before. So what do you have to compare it against?”
Bloxom explained why negotiators didn’t reveal many details to the public during the process. He said that when someone stakes a position in the media, if they change their position at all, they’re seen as the loser.
“To me, politics is kind of an ugly game anyway, and you got to give and take, so I’d rather not stake my position in the paper,” Bloxom said.
“I’d rather do it behind closed doors, throw out an idea, and everybody looks at you and goes, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,’ or they go, ‘Huh, well, let’s think about that for a day or two.’ But it’s not out there in the paper where I see you get judged or where the people from behind the bushes can start shooting at you,” he said.
As reported by The Post, the deal includes $4 billion in tax cuts, a partial grocery tax repeal, nearly-but-not-quite doubling the standard deduction, five percent salary increases for state employees in each of the next two years, but no gas tax holiday, and no complete repeal of the grocery tax. It also includes a tax exemption on $40,000 of military pensions and spending on schools, health and human services, and other items. The Times reported that Senate Democrats won with up to 15 percent of the earned income tax credit refundable for low-income families.
Knight told The Star, “It’s a wonderful compromise. It’s good for the state. We got along the entire time. It was no problem at all. We kind of took our time and tried to get everything right.”
“There was a couple of things I was never going to allow them to do, and there was a couple of things they weren’t going to allow me to do,” he said.
Knight said that both he and Howell get along.
“This, from everyone that’s been involved with it a long time, was as amicable as they have ever seen,” he said. “So it was a real bipartisan coup, if you will, for us to get along, and get along as well as we did.”
Youngkin campaigned on doubling the standard deduction on Virginia income tax. The budget only includes a deduction increase from $4,500 to $8,000 for individuals and from $9,000 to $16,500 for joint filers.
“I never thought Delegate Knight could ever get the standard deduction as high as he did,” Bloxom said. “I’ll say it’s not as flashy as the gas tax holiday, but in reality, it’s probably better for the Virginia taxpayer.”
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Barry Knight” by Barry Knight. Photo “Janet Howell” by Janet Howell. Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Martin Kraft. CC BY-SA 3.0.