As I write this, it is late Sunday evening and we budget conferees have been negotiating for a week. It is our job to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the biennial budget. We hope to finish up by Tuesday.
This is my eighth year as a conferee and I thought you would be interested in some observations. I am pledged not to reveal any decisions until we are finished. Often things we thought were resolved come unglued and are changed at the last minute.
We have over a thousand differences to resolve. Some are multi-million dollar differences. Some are a few thousand dollar differences. Each item is important to someone or it would not have been in a budget. Emotions can get high. But, so far this year, no one has lost his temper..
We are an interesting, if not very diverse, group. There are a total of eleven conferees: seven from the Senate and six from the House. We come from all over the state, which has not always been the case. Most are older white Republican men -- that reflects the General Assembly. There are a total of three of us Democrats. Again this year, I am the only woman. There is one African American member. Clearly, as a group we are not reflective of the Commonwealth.
The chairmen appoint conferees to negotiate various sections of the budget. We tend to keep the same assignments over the years so we can develop expertise. My assignments are public education (pre-K - 12), health and human resources, public safety, and judiciary. This year the differences are more over priorities than philosophy which really helps us resolve differences.
The most influential people in the room are often the professional staff. The Senate staff is headed by Betsey Daly and the House staff by Robert Vaughn. Each chamber has a staff member to cover each section of the budget. It is a very dedicated and knowledgeable group of analysts.
This year we have a little more money to spend than the past several years. Most state agencies still have less funding than in 2007 at the beginning of the Great Recession. Pressures have built up in virtually all aspects of state government.
Especially desperate are education (both K-12 and higher) and human services. Both the House and Senate recognize this and have made them our top priority. Significant new funding will go to each. One of the sticking points tonight is how to allocate public education funding.
The public budget process began mid-December when Governor McAuliffe presented his budget. It was viewed by all as an excellent document. Especially important were his economic development initiatives. Most of these remain basically intact.
Over the next couple days we will wrap up the budget. Hopefully you will think we spent your tax money wisely. We sure are trying!