In private, Virginia governor pushes deep budget cuts

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has privately recommended cutting $730 million from K-12 education and $300 million from health programs, as well as changing the state retirement system and requiring 10 days of furloughs for state employees, all to help offset a $2.2 billion budget shortfall over two years, according to sources familiar with the plan.

The K-12 reductions would loosen the state's basic educational standards while reducing funds for support staff, supplemental salaries for coaches and teachers who serve as club sponsors, and health insurance for teachers.

The health cuts would reduce mental-health treatment beds by 232, take 5 percent in funds from community service boards that offer substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, and freeze enrollment for a program that provides insurance to low-income children.

The governor is also recommending millions of dollars in trims to public libraries, shuttering some state parks and phasing out all public broadcasting support over four years.

McDonnell has refused for weeks to release his proposals publicly, despite repeated requests from lawmakers and advocates. Instead, he and his staff members have been sharing recommendations with small groups of legislators for weeks behind closed doors -- a departure from the way governors have conveyed their budget priorities in Virginia for decades. The governor has scheduled a news conference on the budget for Wednesday, but it's not clear what he will announce.

A number of lawmakers and legislative staffers briefed on the proposals provided information about them to The Washington Post. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because McDonnell has not released the specifics publicly. McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin declined to comment Tuesday.

Democrats, particularly in the Virginia Senate, have questioned McDonnell's leadership on the budget and even unveiled a Web site that counts the number of days he has gone without proposing public budget amendments.

"I personally think it's a dereliction of duty for a governor not to come forward and inform the public on what cuts need to be made,'' said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), a member of the Senate Finance Committee. "It's just sneaky."

But Republicans praised McDonnell, saying he was politically savvy to not publicly attach his name to the cuts and to use his negotiating skills to help work out a budget.

"He prefers to work in smaller groups with both Republicans and Democrats separately and jointly just to get a consensus,'' said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol), the top Republican on the Finance Committee.

The House and Senate will introduce their versions of the budget Sunday.

Then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) introduced a two-year $76.8 billion spending plan in December as one of his last acts in office. Legislators and McDonnell use that plan as a blueprint but make changes based on their priorities and the economic forecast.

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