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Each chamber of the General Assembly to release their budget plans Sunday

Mallory Noe-Payne
Radio IQ

The Virginia House of Delegates and Senate will release their proposed budgets to the public Sunday.

The likely-massive documents will show where the two chambers are on spending priorities and will require compromise with Governor Glenn Youngkin’s budget through a deeply secretive process in the coming weeks.

“We don’t negotiate publicly…” said Morgan Hopkins, Communications Director for House Democrats, responding to questions about the caucus’s budget priorities at a recent press conference.

She’s referring to the process by which Virginia’s budget is crafted, largely out of public sight.

While the public gets to see the debate over traditional legislation in committee hearings, much, if not all, of the final budget deal is worked on through in hallways, stairwells, and cocktail parties.

“I used to say there are like rooms within rooms within rooms within rooms in the General Assembly," said former Republican Delegate Greg Habeeb, who’s now the president of Richmond-based Gentry Locke Consulting. "You get elected and you think, ‘Oh, I’m in the room.’ You’re in a room, you’re not in the room.”

Habeeb said the dealmakers are mainly those on the powerful House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. They work to craft a budget in each chamber, and then release their financial plans for the Commonwealth. The two chambers then vote on their budgets, usually with bipartisan support.

This year’s legislative budgets drop Sunday. And while they will contain details on how Virginia will spend billions of dollars annually — the budget was $81 billion in 2023 — It will probably also include some legislative changes.

That’s because the budget document, according to Habeeb, is the key to legislation which costs money, which is most legislation. Think of Delegate Nadarius Clark’s bill, which says teachers must be paid at least the national average. There are suggested numbers in Clark’s bill, but actual numbers will have to be divined in the budget as an expenditure.

"Seeing the way they do policy in the budget, tying money into programs that support policy initiatives they find important, that's interesting to watch," Habeeb said.

So, is all this secrecy good for the Commonwealth?

“It’s a way to get the budget process done without a lot of lobbyists and other people in the room so they remain focused in that room or wherever they go,” said former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore — the brother of House Republican Terry Kilgore — who now works for the consulting firm Cozen O'Connor in Richmond.

Kilgore was part of administrations after his stint in the AGs office, and he's been involved in the budget process for about 20 years.

Other interesting bits about this year's process will be the wave of new, elected officials who will be involved. Senator Louise Lucas is no stranger to budgeting, but former high-ranking Democrats in the Senate, like Dick Saslaw and Chap Peterson, have since left the legislature, opening the door to new conferee blood.

But Kilgore said long-time legislative staff play a big role in writing up the plan.

"They're seasoned and gathering information since they adjourned last year," he said of legislative staff who work on much of the budget, most of which is not that controversial.

After the release of the budgets Sunday, the two chambers will then appoint conferees to reach a consensus. After its approval by both House and Senate, the proposal goes to Governor Youngkin and the conferee process — in secret — will start all over again until a compromise budget is released, hopefully in time for the July 1 deadline.

And if one isn't reached expect a special session as the last budget, passed way past deadline last fall, ends this summer.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.