Northern Virginians plea for budget spending, sparing at appropriations meeting

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 9:51 PM

More than a hundred Northern Virginia residents pleaded their cases for social services, public education and other state programs at the General Assembly's regional budgetary meeting in Fairfax County, backing up their requests with wrenching and emotional testimony.

A few hundred more listened, packing the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors' auditorium for one of several regional public meetings of the General Assembly's Senate and House Appropriations Committees that have been held around the commonwealth.

Some gave testimony from wheelchairs or with the assistance of sign language interpreters or other aides. They called on lawmakers to help fund health-care insurance for autistic children. They urged restored funding to the state employees' pension fund.

Most often, they asked only that lawmakers cut no more than they have cut, knowing that the budgetary outlook remains grim after the worst recession since the Great Depression. Many acknowledged that the state, like much of the country, has become numb to the list of wants, which have threatened to grow out of control since the recession began.

Often heard was the statistic that Virginia ranks seventh among the states in wealth and 48th in spending on social services, and only one person spoke about taxes. He suggested that, as the owner of an $800,000 home, he could afford to pay more.

"I tell you, I cried when I sat there listening," said Ed Powell, 70, a retired federal employee from Prince William County. "I cried when I sat there listening to the needs of the people."

As she stood at the podium Jennifer Simbulau wept when memories flooded back of the brain injury her daughter suffered and the help her child has since received from publicly funded social services. Her daughter, Maya, a 9-year-old in pigtails, was at her side.

"We're fortunate that she has a case manager, but there are other children in similar situations who do not," Simbulau said after the meeting. But Simbulau, a night nurse who lives in Burke, said she also understood that lawmakers will again struggle with funding problems when the Virginia legislature convenes next week in Richmond.

"It's a hard position, and I'm glad I'm not the one sitting in front of the people speaking," Simbulau said.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, who chairs his chamber's appropriations committee, gaveled the meeting to order at 10 a.m. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), and Dels. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), Joe T. May (R-Loudoun) and Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington) attended most or part of the hearing.

Bruce Neilson spoke on behalf of Social Action Linking Together, a faith-based organization in the Arlington Diocese, to urge the state to index welfare payments to inflation to stop the erosion of buying power for low-income families. Their benefits have not been increased since 1985, Neilson said. He also urged lawmakers to allow Virginia to opt out of a federal ban on providing welfare aid to former convicts found guilty of drug crimes and to boost reimbursement rates for child care to low-income families.

Erica Wood, of the Northern Virginia Aging Network, urged the lawmakers to boost funding for "waivers" that allow eligible people with disabilities to receive services in their homes instead of in institutions.

Teresa Champion, 52, a lawyer from Springfield who ceased practicing to care for her autistic child, asked for support for a measure that would require insurers to cover an intense, specialized form of therapy that can improve an such children's coping ability.

Susan Powell, 67, of the Prince William Retired Teachers Association, urged lawmakers not to balance the budget by further shortchanging the state's pension system.

By 4:30 p.m., the last speaker, No. 109, rose to talk. Doris Ray, 62, of Falls Church waved first $3 in her hand and then $1. Ray, who is blind and hard of hearing, told the panel that it costs $3 to keep someone with a disability in a nursing home or other institution. But it costs only $1 to fund the services that allow them to remain in their homes. Only Colgan and Saslaw were on the dais. Except for three Fairfax County employees, a state trooper who was providing security and a reporter or two, the auditorium was empty.

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