washingtonpost.com
Despite Deficit, Parties Propose New Spending as Election Nears

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 20, 2007

RICHMOND, Sept. 19 -- Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly proposed election-year spending increases for popular programs Wednesday, even as state officials warn that Virginia's $640 million budget deficit could lead to layoffs.

With the Nov. 6 state legislative elections approaching, House Democrats held a news conference to highlight proposals to spend more on health care and insurance benefits for veterans and members of the National Guard.

"I think in November people need to know who they're voting for; they should know what they are getting," House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said.

Four hours later, House and Senate Republicans unveiled the latest in a series of proposals, this one to increase money available for school construction, most of whose costs are paid for by local governments.

"A lot of the school systems have been telling us the current mechanisms are good but they just don't go far enough," said House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who noted that tens of thousands of Fairfax County students attend classes in trailers.

As the parties fight for control of the General Assembly, ideas are flowing from both sides about addressing many of Virginia's challenges. But lawmakers often say little about how they plan to pay for their proposals.

Finance Secretary Jody M. Wagner is expected to tell the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday that the state might have to eliminate a few hundred jobs, increase user fees and curtail some regulatory inspections because of the shortfall in the coming budget. State officials hope that many of the positions can be cut through attrition, but some layoffs are possible.

At Wednesday's dueling news conferences, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans gave specifics about where the money for new programs would come from.

"These are just ideas now," Cox said. "There are a lot of details that need to be worked out."

Armstrong said the Democrats' proposal for veterans is "a work in progress."

All 140 seats in the state legislature will be on ballots Nov. 6. The GOP is hoping to maintain its majority in both houses, and the Democrats are hoping to take over the Senate and make inroads in the House.

Republicans have been offering policy proposals for about a month. GOP leaders want to expand the number of community-based health clinics for the uninsured and crisis stabilization centers to treat the mentally ill. They have also proposed legislation requiring sheriffs to check inmates' immigration status, which some sheriffs say they can't do without more money.

Kaine has also begun outlining his spending priorities. Last week, a committee established by the governor unveiled a long-term strategy to spend $130 million to expand access to health care for the state's 1 million uninsured people. The governor is also pushing to expand pre-kindergarten for poor children, at a cost of $75 million annually.

But Kaine could face difficult decisions because of the shortfall in the coming two-year budget.

Besides a 5 percent cut to agency budgets, Kaine is considering asking the General Assembly to transfer money from the state's $1.2 billion "rainy day" fund.

GOP leaders, and some Democrats, say they are unlikely to support the idea because they believe the fund should be reserved for an emergency or recession. Revenue is projected to grow in the coming budget, though at a slower rate than in recent years.

Kaine and the General Assembly also are facing a constitutionally mandated $1.1 billion increase in funding for public education, and they have ruled out additional taxes.

The Democrats' plan released Wednesday would allow veterans to take out a state employee life insurance policy and to partake in a counseling program that would focus on brain-related injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. The proposal also calls for state employees serving in the National Guard to be paid the equivalent of their state salary while serving. The state would also offer tax credits for companies that provide compensation for employees serving overseas.

The GOP school construction proposal would increase the money available to local governments to build and modernize schools.

"We will make every effort to put some funding in this year, but we are going to be prudent," Cox said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company