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Virginia lawmakers approve budget with pay raises for state employees

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RICHMOND, Virginia — Virginia lawmakers approved a budget Thursday that includes pay increases for state employees, boosts benefits for welfare recipients and includes $1.5 million to buy new yurts for state parks.

The approved spending plan also doesn't raise taxes, restores $30 million for local governments that had previously been cut and gives Gov. Terry McAuliffe new money to spend trying to lure companies to Virginia.

The budget now heads to McAuliffe's desk, who said he was pleased that the budget includes his priorities of economic development, health care, and education. The Democratic governor did not say whether he'll sign the budget, which is a mid-course correction to the state's roughly $95 billion biennial spending plan, or try to change it in some way.

Virginia's budget situation has brightened in recent months due to higher-than-projected revenues and other factors, giving lawmakers more money to spend and creating largely drama-free negotiations between various stakeholders.

Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. S. Chris Jones called the spending plan a "conservative budget that invests in our future."

The budget calls for a 1.5 percent pay increase in the state's share of teacher pay, and a 2 percent increase in the salaries of state police, state employees and college faculty. There also funding for a number of construction projects at the state's public universities, including nearly $11 million in new money to help renovate the University of Virginia's Rotunda.

Low-income recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will get a 2.5 percent boost in their cash benefits starting in 2016. There are currently 54,000 Virginians on TANF, according to the McAuliffe administration.

The budget also includes about $1.5 million to support the purchase and installation of yurts at multiple state parks. Yurts are tent-like structures traditionally used for shelter in places like Mongolia.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly did not include expanding Medicaid eligibility in the budget — a top priority for state Democrats — but does include new money for free health clinics and for programs aimed at helping those with severe mental illnesses.

The budget enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and several House delegates spoke glowingly of their ability to craft a balanced budget without partisan gridlock.

Fairfax County Republican Del. David Albo called the budget process a "great showing for Virginia."

Last year's budget was delayed for several months because of a deadlock over Medicaid expansion, with Republicans who oppose expansion eventually winning.

Fairfax County Democrat Del. Scott Surovell was one of a handful of lawmakers to vote against this year's budget, saying that without including the largely federally funded Medicaid expansion the state's spending plan was incomplete.

"We are not being responsible to our constituents, we are not being responsible to the state," Surovell said. "We are leaving money on the table."

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