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Some victories, much pain in Va. General Assembly session

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, March 14, 2010; C01

RICHMOND

It's hard to find anything positive about a Virginia General Assembly session where the main business at hand was cutting $4 billion in public services to balance the budget.

"I don't think there have been any winners," Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said gruffly when I asked him to name victors and also-rans. Despite that guidance, here's my score card of winners as well as losers from the eight-week gathering that was supposed to end Saturday but went into overtime:

Winner: Ken Cuccinelli. The state's new attorney general made a big splash by picking a fight with public universities over gay rights and challenging the EPA's efforts to limit greenhouse gases. He ensured that his agenda of social conservatism and state's rights will be a prominent feature of government and politics in Richmond for the foreseeable future.

Cuccinelli also successfully positioned himself to the right of two fellow Republicans, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. That's just where Cuccinelli wants to be if he's looking ahead to the next election. Being "more conservative than thou" would help him with the party base if he decides to challenge the low-profile Bolling for the gubernatorial nomination in 2013.

Loser: Virginia's image. The price of Cuccinelli's success was a blow to the state's reputation for tolerance, with his letter to the colleges drawing negative attention from outside the state.

It became an issue in Virginia's battle with Maryland and the District to attract the headquarters of aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. You know the climate of opinion has shifted when even huge military contractors are worried about being tagged as anti-gay.

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart ran a mock news segment about the controversy. "Whatever happened to 'Virginia Is for Lovers'?" he asked, and then showed the famous slogan with an asterisk clarifying, "Certain Kinds Of."

Winner: Northern Virginia's schools. Education budgets in the Virginia suburbs were spared some severe damage when a proposal that would have frozen funding levels was killed. If the freeze had remained, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties stood to lose $118 million.

It was a rare victory for Northern Virginia in a major struggle with the rest of the state over divvying up school funds. It appeared that McDonnell and the GOP were honoring a campaign commitment to help Northern Virginia get a fair share of the huge flow of tax dollars it sends to Richmond.

Some Democrats played down the whole affair, saying the freeze never should have been proposed in the first place. But it was their own outgoing governor, Tim Kaine, who suggested it.

Loser: Poor school districts. While our region's schools fared comparatively well, the budget cuts fell sharply on schools in poorer areas. That's because they tend to be in urban or rural districts that rely heavily on state funds rather than local property taxes.

For instance, the city of Richmond stood to lose $587 per pupil, a cut of nearly 10 percent, in its state funding, under a House of Delegates budget plan. Fairfax County was to gain $173 per student.

The final numbers are still being negotiated, but the basic trend will likely remain the same. Poor urban schools are likely to have to shut down some pre-kindergarten education programs, even though they've been shown to be effective in raising test scores.

The state spends more money on education than anything else, so there's no way to completely protect the schools when red ink flows as strongly as it did this year. Legislators could have raised taxes, of course, but not when the new governor just won by 17 percentage points on a pledge not to do so.

Winner: Guns. People with concealed-weapons permits will be allowed to carry firearms into restaurants and bars as long as they don't drink alcohol. The House of Delegates also approved a score of other proposals to ease restrictions on guns. The Senate killed most of them, but the votes were a sign of rising support for gun rights.

Loser: Sensible redistricting. A House subcommittee killed the latest proposal for an independent, nonpartisan commission to study how to redraw boundaries for voting districts. McDonnell had backed the plan but didn't exert any pressure to push it through.

Winner: The Beast. For those who believe that the Antichrist is an actual threat, he dodged a bullet when a Senate subcommittee quashed a bill that would have made it illegal for companies to require that people be implanted with microchips. A Fredericksburg delegate said some fear that such chips could be a "mark of the beast," as described in the Book of Revelation.

Folks in Northern Virginia needn't fear the Beast. The traffic's so bad he'll never arrive in time to do any harm.

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