Virginia’s McDonnell to propose funding hike for education, mental health, water quality


Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gestures during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond on Dec. 10. (Steve Helber/AP)

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell will propose a two-year state budget Monday that calls for boosting K-12 education funding by nearly $600 million and pouring millions more into higher education, mental health services, water-quality improvements and homelessness-prevention programs.

McDonnell (R) said his plan will be free of budget gimmicks and fat with cash reserves intended to help defense-heavy Virginia weather any jolts that could come from across the Potomac River.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in Washington,” he said in a gathering with reporters last week, hours before the House passed a deal aimed at averting the latest federal budget standoff. “You know, we’re lurching from one disaster to the next up there. . . . Given that uncertainty up there, I want to make sure that we’re well positioned in our own budget.”

With less than a month left in his term, McDonnell will lay out a plan for how the commonwealth spends its money for the next two years. Virginia’s biennial budget cycle requires the outgoing governor to craft a spending blueprint that is handed off to his successor — in this case, Democrat Terry McAuliffe — who generally tries to reshape it to his own liking.

The proposal is a starting point as well as a chance for the departing state executive to make a final, dollars-and-cents statement about his values and priorities.

Four years ago, in the midst of the recession, outgoing Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) left McDonnell with a plan that called for a $2 billion income tax increase. McDonnell, who had run on a promise not to raise taxes, immediately pronounced the idea a non-starter. The tax increase was not included in the budget that ultimately passed the General Assembly that year, although this year, McDonnell signed off on a sweeping transportation-funding plan laden with $1.2 billion a year in new taxes.

McAuliffe, who ran as a bipartisan deal-maker and has effusively praised McDonnell for assisting his transition, seems unlikely to criticize anything included in his predecessor’s budget. The Democrat nevertheless hopes to change it profoundly by adding language to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which state House Republicans say won’t get by them.

“I just don’t see it happening in any way, shape or form,” said state House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights).

McAuliffe has come out publicly in favor of two aspects of McDonnell’s budget announced in advance, one boosting mental health funding and the other providing money for a Richmond slavery museum.

While much of McDonnell’s plan will remain under wraps until he presents it to legislators Monday, the administration has spent the past week trickling out bits and pieces.

The governor has already announced that he will propose adding $38 million to improve how the state serves people experiencing mental health crises. The proposal emerged from a task force McDonnell appointed after last year’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, but it took on greater urgency in recent weeks after the son of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) stabbed the senator and then fatally shot himself.

McDonnell has announced that his spending plan would boost K-12 and pre-K funding over the biennium by $583 million. The bulk of that money would be in the form of direct aid to local school divisions, with much of the rest devoted to school construction loans and pre-K and kindergarten readiness-testing programs. More than $1 million of those funds would be used to staff the Opportunity Educational Institution, created this year to take over persistently failing schools.

The plan includes $183 million in new funding for state colleges and universities, including tuition-assistance grants, workforce development programs and financial aid. Some of the money would reward institutions for increasing graduation rates or awarding more diplomas in subject areas, known collectively as STEM-H, deemed critical for the economy: science, technology, engineering, math and health.

“It has a real nice emphasis on incentivizing certain practices,” Cox said.

The budget allocates more than $31 million in surplus money to a water-quality improvement fund and $9.5 million in additional funding for programs intended to reduce homelessness. It has $11 million for a “slavery freedom and heritage site” in Richmond, which would include a museum and the restoration of a historic jail site.

“Governor McDonnell has demonstrated his commitment to making targeted investments in core areas like K-12 education, higher education and mental health,” said state House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “He is crafting a responsible budget that will serve as a strong framework for the General Assembly to work on this year.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.

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