Jessica Burmester, a mental health advocate whose 35-year-old son is retarded, came to a public hearing yesterday to thank Virginia lawmakers for expanding services for the state's disabled during last year's legislative session.
Then she told them what needs to be done next.
The hearing gave Northern Virginia residents such as Burmester a chance to tell legislators how to spend the state's money as they prepare to review and amend the two-year budget adopted last year. It was one of five similar events held across the state by the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees in the days before the General Assembly session, which opens next week.
Advocates for the disabled were joined at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College by education activists, tourism and transportation supporters and tax opponents. The four House members who presided over the hearing listened quietly as almost 80 speakers stepped forward to give them three minutes' worth of advice.
Like Burmester, many started by expressing gratitude for the increased funding for their causes that emerged from last year's marathon budget process. After an extended stalemate between the House of Delegates and Senate over taxes, the legislature ultimately passed a $60 billion budget. Many state services received historic funding boosts this year as a result of the plan, which required a $1.5 billion tax increase over two years to pay for it.
Burmester noted that all 94 new treatment slots for people with mental disabilities in Fairfax County and Falls Church have been filled. The slots, which allow additional people with certain disabilities to receive visits at home from health aides or to live in group homes, were made possible through an infusion of $40 million in state money.
But 107 people remain on an "urgent care" waiting list, and many others need help but do not qualify for the slots under current rules, said Burmester, who chairs the Mental Retardation Committee of the area's Community Services Board. Additional funding is also needed, she said, to improve the quality of those services.
"Your support has made a difference in the lives of many Virginians," she said. "Many others still need your help."
Francis E. Chase, president of the Education Association of Alexandria, began his remarks by thanking lawmakers for boosting funding for public education by $1.5 billion over two years. But he told them, "We have more work to do in improving teacher salaries," and he warned that low pay is driving aspiring educators from the profession.
Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, and Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, told lawmakers that although they appreciate new dollars for higher education, their institutions will need more funding to accommodate thousands of new students expected to enroll in coming years.
"We have a moral responsibility to grow because of the increasing number of high school graduates, especially in Northern Virginia," Merten said. But he said colleges have a "fiscal responsibility not to grow" until funding is ensured.
Critics of the tax increase had predicted that Virginians would revolt when their sales tax rose to 5 percent and the cigarette tax to 30 cents a pack July 1. However, those displeased with the increases were far outnumbered yesterday by advocates asking for additional money.
James Parmelee, president of Republicans United for Tax Relief, said more tax opponents arrived at the auditorium an hour early to place their names on a sign-up sheet to speak, but they left to return to work after finding the list already long.
"Almost always the people who want money have more folks at these meetings than the people who don't," he said.
Parmelee told lawmakers that a budget surplus, which has emerged as an improving economy boosts state revenue, demonstrates that tax increases were unnecessary. "I guess you can call me an 'I told you so' Republican," he said.