Parts of Virginia's budget may no longer be off-limits

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine: Targeting services
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine: Targeting services (Steve Helber - AP)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

As Virginia's budget outlook deteriorated a year ago, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine recommended closing most of two mental health facilities to save money.

But shuttering the units and ejecting ill patients was too painful and politically difficult for lawmakers, who restored funding for the hospitals to keep them open.

When Kaine (D) unveiled his budget Dec. 18, chock-full of deep cuts designed to close a $4.2 billion shortfall over two years, the mental health centers were back on the chopping block.

Likewise, the outgoing governor recommended requiring 105,000 state employees to begin contributing 1 percent of their paychecks next year and 2 percent the following year to the state's retirement plan.

Virginia, unusual among the states, has ponied up the costs of retirement savings for its employees since 1983. It is an expensive proposition, at about $540 million a year, but one that had been considered politically sensitive. This year, few were surprised to see Kaine propose the idea.

It is a measure of the depth of the budget crisis facing Virginia that Kaine's spending plan is packed with items that a few years ago would have been unthinkable, controversial and likely to tie up the General Assembly for weeks.

Hundreds of additional state employee layoffs, bringing the total put out of work in recent years to more than 1,600? A 17.5 percent cut for local sheriff's offices and 20 percent for police departments in a state that has long prided itself on law and order? Deep cuts for state colleges and universities as well as public schools?

Kaine's proposal targets them all.

"All these issues that would have been life and death in previous years will become background noise this year as everyone competes to get attention," said Neal Menkes, an analyst for the Virginia Municipal League, which is trying to sort out programs worth defending from the lost causes. "It'll take a kind of bloody triage to figure out what you can really focus on to get through the noise."

A departing governor in Virginia has enormous freedom to take on the state's sacred cows, proposing a budget that will last for the next two years but must be steered through the legislature by his successor. In Kaine's case, tumbling tax revenue forced him to put forward a $30.5 billion spending plan, the first time in modern history a governor has proposed a smaller budget on his way out of office than he inherited at the start of his term.

Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R), who takes office Jan. 16, has just a few weeks to come up with changes to Kaine's budget. So far, he has said little about Kaine's proposals to cut except to say he believes that public safety has been hit too hard. He has been far more vocal about Kaine's proposal to eliminate the state's car tax and replace it with a 1 percent increase in the income tax rate.

To remove the tax hike, McDonnell would have to find $950 million in further cuts to submit to the General Assembly for its consideration during the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 13.

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