McDonnell amends Virginia budget, lightly and quickly

With Virginia’s state budget nearly two months late, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is only tinkering with the General Assembly’s two-year, $85 billion spending plan. He’s not making major changes.

McDonnell (R) submitted $43.9 million in amendments about two hours before his midnight Friday deadline. He made 88 changes in all, some of them highly technical, some of them directing more funds to education, economic development and scientific research.

“A Bristol teacher’s paycheck, a Hampton deputy sheriff’s salary, health care for a senior citizen in Fairfax, road projects in Richmond, and the fiscal soundness of the entire Commonwealth — all of these things depend upon the timely passage of a balanced state budget,” McDonnell said in statement that highlighted his quick work on the amendments.

No new taxes or fees would bankroll McDonnell’s additions, which include such diverse priorities as $2 million to lure filmmakers to Virginia and $7.5 million to help localities adjust to changes in military bases.

The governor proposed using higher-than-anticipated lottery proceeds and a surplus expected from this year’s budget.

House and Senate negotiators had nixed some of those proposals earlier in the budget process, including $1 million for proton therapy research at Hampton University. They could die again when the General Assembly reconvenes May 14 to vote on the amendments. After the House and Senate act, McDonnell will only be allowed an up-or-down vote on the entire spending plan.

Legislators were pleased to hear that the budget process, delayed by partisan wrangling over Senate committee assignments and funding for a project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, was moving along, though none reached by phone Saturday had seen the amendments yet.

“Maybe we’ll get this thing wrapped up,” said Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta).

Said Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk): “We have to look at the total picture and see what he’s done. . . . He only had seven days, which was probably a good thing.”

McDonnell played up the tight deadline, portraying it as something to which he had willingly agreed. But by law, McDonnell only had seven days to act on the budget because the General Assembly had not formally ended its special session. He would have had up to 30 days to act had the General Assembly adjourned normally.

But McDonnell said he gave the General Assembly his blessing to remain in session, essentially imposing the shorter timetable on himself.

“This year’s protracted partisan budget battle and the delays caused by political maneuvering by some in the Virginia Senate over committee assignments put at risk local governments’ and school systems’ abilities to budget in a timely and accurate fashion,” McDonnell said in his statement.

“That is why I voluntarily agreed with the General Assembly to reduce the typical 30-day budget review period to only seven days from formal receipt of the budget, and why I have made only limited amendments to the budget passed by the General Assembly late last month.”

Jones said everyone involved wanted a tight time frame.

“We didn’t adjourn on purpose because of the lateness of getting the conference report,” Jones said.

The budget still does not include any funding for the second phase of the Metro extension to Dulles and beyond.

McDonnell left in place $880.9 million in new funding for K-12 and higher education, to the relief of education advocates. He also proposed adding $2.7 million for a third-grade reading program and to recruit teachers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Thankfully, the governor maintains the modest increase in funding for public schools,” said Robley Jones, director of government relations for the Virginia Education Association. “Having said this, it is important for the public to know that we are still well behind [20]08-09 funding levels.”

McDonnell also kept the so-called cost-of-competing funds typically provided to Northern Virginia schools to help them attract staff in that expensive jobs market.

Earlier in the budget process, McDonnell had wanted those funds only for teachers, not other school staff. This time around, he kept the funds but added budget language requiring that they be withheld in the second year of the budget until auditors could take a closer look at the program.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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