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Schools, health care, public safety lose millions in Va. budget

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's push for bills to make it easier to create charter schools was successful, and he'll also get more money to lure companies to the state.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's push for bills to make it easier to create charter schools was successful, and he'll also get more money to lure companies to the state. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly adjourned its annual legislative session Sunday evening after adopting a two-year, $82 billion budget that cuts millions from education, health care and public safety -- curtailing state spending more aggressively than any in generations while fulfilling the new Republican governor's promise not to raise taxes.

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The trade-off for holding firm against a tax increase to plug a $4 billion hole was a spending plan that cuts deeply into virtually every area of state responsibility.

"We tried to keep our word," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "We knew times were tough, but the state has to live within its means, just as families have to live within theirs."

Funding for schools will drop $646 million over the next two years; the state will also cut more than $1 billion from health programs. Class sizes will rise. A prison will close, judges who die or retire won't be replaced and funding for local sheriff's offices will drop 6 percent.

Only 250 more mentally disabled adults will receive money to get community-based services, in a state where the waiting list for such services numbers 6,000 and is growing. Employees will take a furlough day this year, the state will borrow $620 million in cash from its retirement plan for employees and future employees will be asked to retire later and contribute more to their pensions.

Medical care providers will see Medicaid payments from the state trimmed, and fewer poor children will be enrolled in state health care, although those health cuts could be tempered by anticipated federal funds. Funding for the arts and public broadcasting will be cut by 15 percent over two years.

The session was extended by a day as the Democrat-led Senate and GOP-controlled House struggled to resolve differences over the budget, notably an effort by Democrats to preserve some programs by raising fees instead of taxes. That effort was largely rebuffed by the House, although lawmakers did agree to raise about $100 million in fees over the next two years, including by increasing court costs and bumping a fee on car registration that goes to safety and emergency service workers from $4.25 to $6.25.

The 61-day session began with legislators attending the gubernatorial inauguration of Robert F. McDonnell (R) and ended with the rookie governor declaring victory on his leading, if limited, priorities. Among his successes were measures that will make it easier to establish charter schools and allocate future revenue from as-of-now-unapproved offshore drilling toward improving state roads.

And while slashing spending elsewhere, the General Assembly agreed to give the governor more money to lure companies to Virginia and to spend state dollars to buoy the tourism, wine and filmmaking industries, part of an economic push McDonnell outlined during a campaign in which he pledged that creating jobs would be his singular focus as governor.

Democrats said they tried their best to limit hits to education and other needs. But they said residents will be dismayed when the consequences of the cuts become clear -- after their local governments begin raising property taxes and eliminating programs to compensate for the loss of state funds.

"It's just passing the buck," said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), who heads the board's legislative committee. "It's a raid on public school funding. It's a raid on human services funding. And it's ignoring the transportation problem in Northern Virginia."

Republicans said they hoped that the public would applaud their fiscal discipline and compare it favorably with spending by Democrats in Washington. "We were much more restrained than they are on the other side of the Potomac," said Sen. Robert Hurt (R-Pittsylvania), who is running for Congress. "A lot of what went on this session reflected what people were hearing about back home."


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