Republicans Question Kaine's Budget Priorities

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008; Page A01

RICHMOND, Feb. 13 -- Members of the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee criticized the Kaine administration Wednesday over a budget-balancing proposal that would cut aid to public schools, colleges and local governments to make up for a $1.4 billion shortfall while keeping funding for a variety of new programs.

"What we're saying is, we're going to cut basic aid to public education pretty significantly, and we're going to fund new programs at the same time," Del. Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte) said to Finance Secretary Jody M. Wagner. "I'm trying to figure out how we're going to make that work. I think it's fair to say we're going to fund those by cutting basic aid to education."

The sharp questions to Wagner, mostly by Republicans, came a day after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced a budget shortfall through 2010 and recommended significant cuts and possible layoffs.

As the General Assembly enters the midpoint of the 60-day legislative session, amending the current budget and passing a $78 billion, two-year spending plan takes center stage. The House and Senate will consider Kaine's recommendations and release their budget proposals Sunday.

Kaine's proposal includes reducing money for school construction by more than $100 million, cutting aid to local governments by 5.4 percent and reducing grants to public colleges and universities by 2 percent. Higher-education institutions faced cuts of 5 to 6.25 percent last year.

Some delegates asked why Kaine left some of his initiatives in the budget, including those that would expand subsidized pre-kindergarten to 4-year-olds, improve foster care and launch a government program that would help offer health insurance to low-income employees.

"I'm just left with a conclusion it's legacy for legacy," Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said. "Are you're saying those things are a higher priority, and they are more important than some of the core functions? Isn't that what it comes down to?"

Kaine's recommendations include significantly cutting but not eliminating the new programs. For example, he proposes cutting $12.5 million out of his initial $56 million proposal for pre-kindergarten, $5.8 million out of the $43.4 million for foster care and $5.7 million out of the $7.7 million for health insurance.

Wagner told the committee that the programs will help communities, calling them "an investment in the future."

"When times are tough, you need to look at balancing different priorities," she said. "The governor is very committed to education, extremely committed to K-12 education. On the other hand, there are other citizens of the commonwealth that have needs, too, and this is an effort to balance those needs."

Kaine suggested Tuesday that Virginia cut back aid to state agencies, dip into the state's financial reserves, reduce raises for state employees and teachers, and pay for some building projects with debt instead of cash to help cover an unexpected $1.4 billion budget shortfall through 2010. It was the second time in four months that Kaine has proposed trimming state spending.

"To the greatest extent possible when we are doing expense reductions, I want them to be performance-driven, based on prioritizations, rather than just rough cuts with everything on the same level," Kaine said. "I think that's very important, because at the end of the day, we are measured by the services we provide to those who aren't on Capitol Square."

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