Budget Includes Big Wins for Low-Income Virginians

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Nearly three months after the close of the 2018 General Assembly Regular Session, Governor Northam signed the 2018-2020 biennial budget bill, which most notably included the necessary framework for the Commonwealth to expand its Medicaid program in order to cover nearly 400,000 currently uninsured low-income Virginians. The Medicaid Expansion advocacy effort has spanned 5 years, three administrations, and several different iterations of the General Assembly, but one constant over that time period has been the united front of advocates–individuals and organizations across the spectrum–who continued to fight long and hard for this moment. LAJC is proud to have worked as a partner in the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, alongside our friends at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and the Virginia Poverty Law Center (thank you, Jill Hanken!) as we fought for the healthcare needs of our clients. 

The main provisions of the expansion will come into effect on January 1, 2019, but the state has already posted more information on the ins and outs of the new coverage categories on its CoverVa website here.

Medicaid Expansion is a huge victory, and deservedly in the spotlight as the headliner of the state’s new budget, but LAJC also advocated for many other budget reforms, many of which were realized in meaningful ways:

Children’s Mental Health:

We successfully advocated alongside our partners at Voices for Virginia’s Children to make sure that children were included in the approved proposal to invest $7 million to establish a statewide system of alternative transportation for children and adults under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO). Currently, after patients have been evaluated and found to be in need of involuntary inpatient treatment, they are transported to treatment facilities by law enforcement, which includes shackling and being placed in a police cruiser. The new funding will allow Virginia to develop treatment-focused alternative transportation options that can decriminalize what can be a traumatic experience for patients who are already experiencing trauma. LAJC has worked with several very young clients, for example (ages 7 and 9) who, because of no other options, were shackled and taken to the hospital by law enforcement. One of these children had just been removed from his family by social services and seen his own father arrested–his only other experience with police at that point. Providing options in appropriate cases can help patients, families, and even law enforcement provide appropriate, safe care while using the patient’s own therapeutic needs as a guiding principle, which follows best practices in mental health treatment.

K-12 Public Education:

The biennial budget’s largest K-12 investment went to rebenchmarking our overall spending, which the General Assembly must do on a set schedule. It’s critical to underscore that rebenchmarking in and of itself DOES NOT provide the full and necessary investments in our Standards of Quality to assure all children across the state are receiving a high-quality education. We have a long way to go, and LAJC will continue to advocate, using all of our tools, to assure our K-12 system is adequately funded. Even so, the new budget did contain several new pieces of funding for policy proposals on our legislative agenda this year:

1. We successfully advocated for a one-percent increase (to 14% from 13%) to the “At-risk Add-on” range, a funding stream that provides additional dollars to local school divisions, measured in relation to the number of economically disadvantaged students attending in the division. Increasing the high end of the range will help some of our most under-funded school divisions (several of which are in our practice areas) provide more funding to students in need. Our goal for the year, in collaboration with our partners in the Alliance for Virginia’s Students, was to raise this threshold to somewhere between 20% to 25%; while we will accept the incremental bump as a win, we will continue to push for increases in funding that prioritize areas of poverty in the Commonwealth.

2. Through advocacy with both the Governor’s office and the General Assembly, we successfully advocated for a $1 million increase in funding for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a framework that helps to reduce the use of school suspension and expulsion by focusing on prevention, improving school climate, and tailoring higher-level interventions to the specific needs and circumstances of students with more challenging behavior issues. Nearly seven years ago, LAJC led the way in advocating for the initial line-item inclusion of PBIS in the budget, and this year’s budget addition represents the largest increase in the program since its inception. And we will continue our advocacy to create and improve more alternatives to suspension and expulsion–read more about our recommendations, which include things like restorative practices and social and emotional learning, in our Suspended Progress reports.

Juvenile Justice:

We successfully defended against a proposal initially put forth by the House of Delegates to build a new 156-bed facility at the old Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center site, which would have put an exceptionally large youth prison back in a remote location that has a terrible history of unsafe, harsh youth incarceration, and placed community alternative funds in great jeopardy. The General Assembly instead approved pieces of a plan put forth by the Northam administration to build a 60-bed facility in Isle of Wight, Virginia, and lay some initial groundwork for planning a to-be-determined Central Virginia facility to replace Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. We will continue to advocate for the decarceration of youth, and to work hard on reforming our juvenile justice system to stop the flow of young people further into the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems. 

What’s Next:

Just as one session ends, it seems preparation for the next year’s session begins. Stay tuned for more information on LAJC’s 2019 legislative advocacy agenda over the next few months. We’ll be continuing to work on issues like reforming the court debt process, increasing education equity and education funding, improving school discipline and reducing school exclusion, protecting immigrant communities, reducing evictions, and assuring low-income Virginians are able to achieve economic security. If you’d like to become involved in our legislative and administrative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at amy@justice4all.org. You can also sign up for our email alerts here.