Lawmakers Craft Bond Package for Education, Parks

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

RICHMOND, April 15 -- Virginia House and Senate negotiators agreed late Tuesday to borrow $1.4 billion to pay for construction at the state's colleges, parks and mental-health facilities.

The bond package was one of the last unresolved issues when lawmakers adjourned last month after extending their session five days. The General Assembly will return April 23 to vote on the bond package and to consider Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's amendments to and vetoes of other bills passed during the regular legislative session.

"The completion of their work will signal a record investment in Virginia's higher education institutions, which are absolutely critical to our economic success,'' Kaine (D) said in a statement. "In addition, I applaud their inclusion of key projects to improve open space and expand Virginia's state park system. This is a signature achievement for the General Assembly. I look forward to reviewing the bill."

In December, Kaine asked legislators to approve a $1.65 billion bond for construction projects at the state's colleges and universities.

The Senate wanted to issue $2.6 billion in bonds for education and other projects, but the House voted to borrow $1.8 billion, with some Republicans arguing that the state should not borrow as much during an economic downturn.

Negotiators have been meeting for a month. They reached a verbal compromise Tuesday. Final agreements will not be signed until early next week, said Del. Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte), one of the negotiators.

On top of the $1.4 billion, an additional $900 million will be spent to plan projects.

Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), also a negotiator, said he was pleased with the compromise, which he said will include a six-year plan.

"It strikes a balance,'' he said.

The bond package will pay for about 140 projects across the state. Approximately three-quarters of them are projects for community colleges and universities, including George Mason University in Fairfax County.

If the compromise package is approved and signed by Kaine, the state could start issuing the bonds immediately. It would be one of the largest bond efforts ever proposed for higher education and would come as money from the 2002 bonds runs out.

About 360,000 students attend the state's 16 public, four-year schools and 23 community colleges, making the system the 11th-largest higher education program in the nation. An additional 51,000 students are expected to enroll in the next decade.

State leaders have been relying more on borrowing for large projects, including a transportation package approved this year. In 2002, legislators and voters approved $900.5 million in bonds for higher education construction projects and $119 million for state parks.

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