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

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; A01

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.

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."

The bleak budget outlook, the result of tax collections that have fallen for two consecutive years for the first time since the Depression, dominated the session.

"Anything that cost one penny, I didn't even hear," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who chairs the House's Courts of Justice Committee, ordinarily one of the legislature's busiest.

The economy cast a "gloom" over the proceedings, said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "Agonizing," Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) called it.

Beyond the budget

Some issues that didn't cost any money did draw attention, particularly when the legislature used its perch 105 miles south of Washington to express disapproval of federal action.

Virginia became the first state in the country to pass legislation making it illegal for government to require individuals to buy health insurance, a measure passed in protest of national Democrats' efforts to reform health care. Opponents said the Virginia bill was unconstitutional, but supporters said it will send an important message. The measure emerged from the legislature only because five Democrats in the Senate crossed party lines to vote for it.

Emboldened by their November electoral victories, Republicans also pushed to limit gun control. The General Assembly approved a measure to allow gun owners with concealed-weapons permits to carry guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, provided they do not drink. A similar bill passed last year and was vetoed by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D); this year, McDonnell has said he will sign it.

But the Democrat-led Senate largely blocked other gun measures, breaking with Senate tradition by allowing a specially appointed subcommittee to kill many of them, most notably a proposal to repeal a law limiting handgun purchases to one a month.

The Democrats relied on their thin majority in the Senate to provide a counterweight to the new governor and the GOP-led House in other areas as well, establishing a political dynamic likely to shape McDonnell's term in office.

Senators banded together and threatened to block the confirmation of Robert Sledd as secretary of commerce and trade unless the Richmond businessman relinquished positions on three corporate boards. McDonnell was forced to relent and appoint Sledd as a special adviser, elevating Jim Cheng to the Cabinet-level position instead.

Abortion clinic bills

As it does each year, the Senate rejected measures approved by the House to regulate abortion clinics. Senators also blocked a proposal to expand the use of the death penalty to accomplices in killings.

But the Senate joined the House in approving bills to allow colleges to partner with local school districts to create laboratory schools, expand the use of online virtual schools and empower the state Board of Education to provide advice to those seeking local approval for new charter schools. The package was a McDonnell priority and was passed over vigorous objections from African American lawmakers, who said that the measures would siphon dollars from traditional public education.

McDonnell's focus on jobs and the economy was repeatedly disrupted by flare-ups on controversial social issues he attempted to avoid in the campaign, largely instigated by members of his party.

In the final week of the session, legislators were distracted by a letter that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) sent to state colleges and universities, urging them to remove sexual-orientation language from their anti-discrimination policies. He argues that the General Assembly has not extended colleges the authority to offer legal protections to gays. The result was a late and unsuccessful push by Democrats to revive legislation to write such protections into the Virginia Code.

Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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