Kaine Offers Major Shifts In Proposal To Cut Budget

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 18, 2008

RICHMOND, Dec. 17 -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine launched a budget-balancing proposal Wednesday that would transform the commonwealth's old-guard fiscal policies into ones that reflect the political conversion from red state to blue.

Many of the prescriptions to address a $2.9 billion budget shortfall that he unveiled would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. He proposed doubling the tax on tobacco in a state that once based its economy on cigarettes. He wants to offer early release to some prisoners doing time for nonviolent offenses in a state that trails only Texas in executions. And he has suggested taking steps to end Virginia's long history of housing the severely mentally ill in institutions.

"It strikes right at Old Virginia," Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) said of Kaine's proposals.

Kaine (D) declared "Old Virginny is dead" after he helped President-elect Barack Obama carry the state in the November election. Analysts say he is embracing a strategy that would force Republican lawmakers to accept through legislative proposals and electoral defeats that the state has changed in lasting ways.

In offering his budget amendments to the House and Senate money committees Wednesday, Kaine set about guiding the state through an economic crisis that is likely to define his four-year term as governor. Virginia governors cannot run for reelection.

"We try to make cuts that position us better for the future rather than just find savings for today," Kaine said. "Wherever possible, we propose real, long-term savings."

Some of Kaine's proposals were painful but expected. State agencies, including colleges, would face 15 percent cuts. He proposed a $400 million cut to education funding and a $400 million cut to Medicaid, which helps cover medical needs for the indigent, elderly, blind and disabled.

But many of Kaine's budget moves were designed to spare programs he considers politically important. Many social service and environmental initiatives will be protected from deep cuts, while once-sacred constituencies could be hurt.

Kaine's 30-cent-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax will be debated in a state that was once home to thousands of tobacco farms and is still home to one of the world's largest cigarette makers, Richmond-based Philip Morris. Kaine said the proposed increase, which GOP lawmakers vow to derail, would prevent further cuts to Medicaid while discouraging smoking.

Kaine's most unorthodox budget proposal deals with reducing the prison population. Virginia is long known for its get-tough approach to crime. Under former governor George Allen (R), Virginia abolished parole in the 1990s.

Kaine said he hopes to provoke a statewide discussion about incarceration rates and, in the process, save money by releasing some offenders early. By giving the director of corrections authority to release nonviolent offenders 90 days before their sentences end, providing their behavior warrants it, the governor estimates the state would find considerable savings. The director has the authority to release a prisoner a month early.

"I am not proposing this to be controversial. I am proposing this to be smart," Kaine said.

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