State Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City. (Image: Virginia Mercury)

State Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City. (Image: Virginia Mercury)

In early May, Virginia lawmakers negotiating the state’s overdue budget pointed to the federal debt ceiling fight as a reason to delay action on the state’s spending plans. 

A feared financial catastrophe never came to pass because Congress reached a bipartisan deal to raise the country’s borrowing limit. But Virginia legislators have shown little eagerness to return to Richmond to pass a budget deal of their own.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee met to hear updates on state revenues, Medicaid and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push for lab schools. There was little public discussion among the committee members, many of whom are facing competitive primaries that will be decided next week, about the status of the unfinished budget.

In an interview after the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, suggested the delay is less about macroeconomic trends and more about the pressures of electoral politics.

“I think that the impasse on the budget has been more because of primaries, political considerations,” Norment said. “And that some of the leaders have been distracted.”

Sens. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and George Barker, D-Fairfax — the two lawmakers leading budget negotiations on behalf of Senate Democrats — quibbled with Norment’s characterization.

“We’ve had a lot of other issues,” Barker said, pointing to the possibility of economic recession as a significant factor. Howell is retiring, but Barker is facing a robust primary challenge from Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky.

Barker and Howell noted the General Assembly doesn’t have the same pressing June 30 deadline to act on the budget as it did last year, when a deal wasn’t approved until early June. Because Virginia operates on a two-year budget cycle that started in 2022, they said, the existing budget can continue to stand and lawmakers can return later this year to approve any amendments that can pass muster with the Republican-led House of Delegates, the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

Norment, who chose not to seek reelection this year to avoid a primary fight of his own, predicted the budget talks will see a “reinvigoration after June 20.”

“Senator Barker and Senator Howell are keenly aware that local governments have been holding their breath in anticipation of this impasse being resolved. Because they’ve got funding issues. They’ve got taxation issues,” Norment said. “I’m confident they’re sensitive to that and that we will come together.”

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, which handles budgetary matters and tax policy for the upper chamber, is getting a major overhaul after the recent redistricting process, which forced several incumbents into retirement or competitive primaries. Nearly half of the lawmakers on the 15-person committee are stepping down after this year, and five more will have to win primaries next week in order to remain. 

In addition to Barker, the finance committee members facing primaries next week are Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax and Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax.

Disagreement over tax cuts sought by Youngkin and whether the state can afford them has been at the heart of the budget dispute for the first two years of the governor’s terms. Senate Democrats have supported some forms of tax relief, but have balked at other proposals they see as disproportionately benefiting the wealthy or corporations.

During Tuesday’s discussion of the latest state revenue numbers, Norment asked Secretary of Finance Stephen Cummings if he was seeing any warning signs making the Youngkin administration reconsider whether its current proposal of $1 billion in tax cuts is financially viable.

“We feel really good about where we are,” Cummings replied, adding the state still has the resources to “execute on the plan.”

Though the state technically doesn’t have to pass a new budget this year, big-ticket items with bipartisan support, like Youngkin’s call for a $230 million overhaul of Virginia’s overwhelmed mental health system, are largely contingent on the General Assembly appropriating funding for them. The mental health proposal includes $9 million in new funding to help students who may be struggling in K-12 schools or colleges, an issue both parties have portrayed as an urgent priority.

With the budget still an open question, left-leaning groups have also launched messaging campaigns meant to promote Senate Democrats’ spending plans as superior to the alternatives pursued by Youngkin and the House GOP. A nonprofit activist group called Freedom Virginia created a mobile billboard urging legislators to reject Youngkin’s proposed reduction in the state’s corporate tax rate and instead boost funding for public schools.

At the event, Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, said he disagreed with the attitude of “wait until after the election to get a budget,” but he claimed the governor was to blame. Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, Bagby said he’d rather not pass a budget than use state dollars on some of the items Republicans want.

“I would prefer we not have a budget at all than send the money of hard-working Virginians to millionaires and corporations,” Bagby said.