Who Needs the General Assembly? Let the Budget Conferees Do It.

Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chair of Senate Finance and Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chair of House Appropriations. Photo credit: Richmond Times Dispatch

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Although legislating through the budget, a practice that used to be frowned upon, is not new, this year’s budget conferees are taking the practice to a new dimension.

The amendments released by the budget conferees include the following new provisions in the “General Provisions” section. In most cases, the Code of Virginia is amended. The remaining cases involve just language in the Appropriation Act.

  1. Changes to the tax code. These have become a standard practice.  This year there are provisions to increase the standard deduction, eliminate the state portion of the sales tax on groceries, increase income tax credits for military benefits, and make significant changes to the statutory  language regarding housing opportunity credits.
  2. University housing. To the extent that institutions of higher education operate student housing during breaks, requires them to allow eligible foster students to stay in them free of charge.
  3. Casino referendum. Prevents the city of Richmond from having a second referendum on casinos until November 2023.
  4. Private school. Exempts a private school from licensing requirements.  (The school was previously exempted until repeal of the applicable statutory provision in 2020.)
  5. Games of skill. Changes the definition of games of skill.
  6. Marijuana and hemp. Establishes a criminal penalty for possession of four ounces to one pound of marijuana. Changes requirements for labeling of products including industrial hemp. This is the first time that I remember the budget bill being used to amend the criminal code and impose a new criminal penalty.

There are several significant advantages to proposing major policy changes in this manner. First, they do not have to go through those pesky subject area committees where they are subject to public comment, debate among the members, amendment, and failure. Second, the budget conference report is developed largely behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny, as well as scrutiny by other members of the legislature. Finally, the conference report on any bill, including the budget bill, is not amendable on the floor; there is only an up or down vote on the report as a whole. However, it may be possible to challenge some provisions under the “germaneness” rule. For example, how is the timing of a casino referendum in Richmond germane to a bill appropriating funds to operate the government? Or how is a criminal offense for possessing four ounces of marijuana germane?

At this rate, most of the legislators can just sit back and allow the budget conferees take care of most of the legislative business before the General Assembly.