In private, Virginia governor pushes deep budget cuts

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; B01

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.

McDonnell and the Republican-controlled House immediately dismissed Kaine's proposal for a tax increase, though the Democratic-controlled Senate remains divided. The state faces a $4.2 billion shortfall, and without a tax increase, legislators must find an additional $2.2 billion in cuts.

McDonnell told reporters that he has tried to be helpful and that Democrats are frustrated because he opposes raising taxes.

"I've chosen to work with the leadership of both houses and the budget conferees in what I would call a collaborative and cooperative fashion,'' he said.

McDonnell and Secretary of Finance Richard D. Brown outlined nearly $2.1 billion in budget cuts to key legislators: $730 million in K-12 education; $300 million in health and human resources care; $550 million in changes to the state retirement system, including some that could reduce retirement benefits for new state and local employees; and $180 million in 10 days of furloughs, according to legislators and staffers. McDonnell and Brown also suggested tens of millions of dollars in other cuts to higher education, public safety and aid to localities.

But by far the bulk of the recommended cuts are to K-12 education and health and human services, which could affect all schoolchildren and tens of thousands of Virginians who receive aid from the state.

Education cuts include millions less for the standards of quality -- what commonly defines a basic education in Virginia, including minimum staffing requirements.

"Usually by this time, the public would have been deeply involved in the debate,'' said Robley S. Jones, director of government affairs for the Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers. "The governor has chosen not to do that. I'm not sure democracy is well served."

The health and human resources proposals broadly fit into three categories -- trims to programs, reductions to provider rates and cuts in administrative costs.

They include reducing Medicaid eligibility for those in long-term care, such as nursing homes, which could affect 2,000 Virginians.

Robert Vaughn, staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, said McDonnell has suggested reducing eligibility for Medicaid programs -- state- and federal-funded programs for low-income and disabled people managed by the state. Virginia already has some of the toughest eligibility requirements in the nation.

McDonnell also has recommended cutting $30 million over two years from the state's FAMIS health program, which provides insurance to low-income children and pregnant mothers. That change would come from freezing enrollment in FAMIS, which would affect 28,000 Virginians.

"For the state to turn its back on low-income pregnant mothers and kids is horrifying," said Jill Hanken, a staff attorney with the Poverty Law Center.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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