The Virginia Senate could vote Tuesday on a budget package that would fund not only Loudoun’s vacant judgeship, but all 31 unfunded judgeships across the commonwealth.
The funding is part of a proposed budget bill negotiated between Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations leadership and released Monday. It lays out a path to Medicaid expansion incorporating a training, education, and employment requirement and a tax on private acute care hospitals to help fund the state’s costs. It also includes $8.4 million in fiscal year 2020—which begins July 2019—to fund all 435 judgeships authorized by state law, including the 31 Circuit, District, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts that are authorized but unfunded in the proposed biennial budget.
The compromise was worked out between two Republican committee chairmen: Sen. Emmet W. Hanger Jr. (R-24), co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee; and Del. S. Chris Jones (R-76), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Leesburg Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33) said fully funding the state’s judiciary is “long overdue.”
“We had commissioned the judicial weighted caseload study so that we could take the politics out of judicial selection, but we’ve never fully funded all the positions that are authorized, so it’s wonderful that we are finally coming up with the money,” Wexton said.
The amendments also preserve the $900,000 each year included in the introduced budget for additional mental health dockets and drug court programs, an issue that local Loudoun legislative and judicial leaders have pushed. Loudoun leaders have said a drug court program—whereby some drug offenders get a chance to avoid jail time after violating probation by going instead to an intensive outpatient treatment program—may be impractical without more help on the bench. The drug court program can be very time-intensive for judges, who keep close supervision over the people taking part.
Loudoun lost one of its 20th Circuit Court judgeships in 2017, when the General Assembly voted during a vacancy on the bench to remove funding for one judge. Loudoun’s legal community pushed for several years to create a fourth bench seat because of the circuit’s heavy and complex caseload, finally gaining approval in 2015. But that was taken away again after the retirement of Judge Burke F. McCahill. The Loudoun Bar Association had nominated—and the General Assembly had declared qualified—Leesburg attorney Alex N. Levay to take McCahill’s spot on the bench. With no judgeship awaiting him, Levay continued his private practice.
Last year, a report by the National Center for State Courts concluded that Virginia needed 28 more judges in its Circuit, District, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts—including one in the 20th Circuit that serves Loudoun.
The proposed bill would be the most generous in terms of judgeships offered up in years. This year, neither chamber’s adopted budget funded every judgeship, nor even Loudoun’s judgeship.
The bill implements the Affordable Care Act in Virginia by covering all adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, estimated at 300,000 people. Those above the federal poverty level—this year set at an annual income of $25,100 for a family of four—would pay premiums on a sliding scale.
“Not only will we be able to provide lifesaving coverage to the more than 300,000 Virginians who don’t have it—those who fall in the coverage gap, including about 6,000 of whom live in my senate district—we will be returning millions of taxpayer dollars every single day back into Virginia’s economy, so I cannot overstate how important this is,” Wexton said.
The bill also proposes hundreds of millions of dollars more for K-12 education, including for a 3 percent raise for teachers; more than doubling the state’s cash reserves to a minimum of 5 percent of general fund revenues held in reserve by fiscal year 2021; and $1.4 billion for dredging in the Port of Virginia and the Elizabeth River.
The senate finance committee did not meet today. If when the senate meets at 3:30 it passes a discharge petition, it will cause the bill to come to the floor of the senate for a vote without a recommendation form the committee. If senators approve a budget bill, and the House of Delegates agrees to it at its meeting Wednesday, it could bring to an end a special session that began when differences over whether to expand Medicaid in Virginia divided the two chambers and prevented passing a biennial budget.