McDonnell's budget amendments: More spending than cuts

By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 17, 2010; 9:04 PM

RICHMOND - Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell proposed Friday to use higher-than-expected revenue and $192 million in savings for his top policy priorities: job creation, transportation and higher education.

In his annual speech to the General Assembly's money committees Friday, McDonnell (R) told legislators that the state's economy is growing at a pace slightly better than expected, allowing him to raise Virginia's financial forecast by $283 million over the next two years.

As a result, he announced more new spending than cuts for the first time in years while releasing amendments to a still-lean two-year budget over the last week.

They include down payments on some of McDonnell's top priorities, which focus heavily on economic development, substantial funding to shore up the state's pension system, as well as goodies for pet projects, including $500,000 for the state's food banks and Operation Smile. Proposed cuts include a hit to social services for children, reduced advertising for the lottery and the elimination of state funding for public broadcasting.

"Government must set priorities, encourage cost savings and frugality, fund core functions of government well, set the right climate for job creation and economic development, and then, basically, get out of the way," McDonnell said to a standing-room-only crowd on Capitol Square.

He took lawmakers and college presidents by surprise by stripping nearly $17 million in funding for Virginia Commonwealth University after it raised tuition 24 percent this year. Other schools increased tuition by nearly 10 percent.

The father of five, including three at Virginia public universities, said he hopes his decision sends a message to the rest of the state's schools that they can no longer dramatically increase tuition and fees. "It's leaving our kids with a decade of debt when they get out," he said. "This will certainly be a good message to our higher-education institutions that need to govern their tuition rates accordingly."

VCU President Michael Rao said in a statement that McDonnell's decision "directly affects" the school's ability to provide a quality education and ensure that students graduate on time.

"VCU has cut costs to the bone over the past several years, so much so that the reductions undermined the quality of instruction," he said.

Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington) called McDonnell's decision "shocking," noting that VCU enrolls mostly in-state students, unlike other universities, which can offset costs with large numbers of out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. "They offer a great education, but you can't offer it for nothing."

McDonnell recently unveiled a plan to provide a stable funding source for schools so they can avoid such dramatic tuition increases by providing them financial incentives to fulfill such goals as graduating more students in four years.

He is asking legislators to approve spending $58 million next year toward his education plan, which includes awarding 100,000 new associate and bachelor's degrees over the next 15 years through financial aid, grants to virtual schools and other programs.

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