Lawmakers Approve Revisions to 2-Year Budget

By Anita Kumar and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 1, 2009

RICHMOND, Feb. 28 -- The Virginia General Assembly adjourned its regular session Saturday night after approving revisions to a two-year, $77 billion spending plan that includes cuts to education, law enforcement and health care.

The budget uses $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money to help offset a $3.7 billion shortfall, but deep cuts will hit an array of programs and services as Virginia faces one of its worst financial crises of modern times.

"Without a doubt, this is the most difficult budget that's been worked on by the General Assembly and by the governor in Virginia in a very long time," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said.

In the final hours, legislators limited the number of support staffers at public schools next year, saving $340 million, and altered the timetable for large retailers to send sales taxes to the state, recouping $100 million. But they scrapped proposals to release some nonviolent offenders early and limit the number of out-of-state students admitted to colleges and universities.

"We are struggling. People are losing their jobs. There have been foreclosures. Banks have failed," House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said. "This is a tough time, and therefore this budget had to be tough."

Lawmakers agreed to put $160 million in reserve for future economic problems. Their actions this session amended a two-year spending plan that began in July and runs through June 2010.

Less than 24 hours after a dozen negotiators agreed to the budget, the Republican-controlled House approved the budget by a vote of 90 to 8, followed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which voted 35 to 5 with no debate.

Kaine said the state would have had to cut $800 million and eliminate up to 7,000 jobs without the federal stimulus money.

A divided General Assembly returned to Richmond in January for its annual legislative session -- the second year since Reconstruction that different parties had outright control of the House and Senate.

Legislators' most significant policy change was a ban on smoking in most of the state's bars and restaurants pushed by Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). It marked a monumental political and cultural shift for a state whose history has been intertwined with tobacco for centuries.

Lawmakers also agreed to ban texting while driving and expanded capital punishment to criminals who assist in murders but do not commit them. And they decided to allow voters to enter the polls wearing T-shirts, buttons or other apparel with political slogans or candidates' names and to prohibit stores from selling novelty cigarette lighters to juveniles.

Legislators knew their 45-day session would be dominated by the grim financial outlook.

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