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Va. budget plan would shrink general spending to 2006 levels

The House has recommended heavy cuts in funding for the arts.
The House has recommended heavy cuts in funding for the arts. (Bob Brown/richmond Times-dispatch)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

RICHMOND --Virginia will do less for its residents, and expect local governments and private charities to do more, under a new state budget likely to have an impact for years to come.

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With Virginia facing what lawmakers say is the grimmest financial picture in memory, the House of Delegates and Senate adopted budgets last week that would shrink general spending to about $15 billion, or no more than was spent four years ago. In other words, Virginia would spend about the same amount on services as it did when there were 100,000 fewer residents and many fewer were in economic distress.

Now, as the annual legislative session draws to a close, leading delegates and senators are negotiating serious differences between the two spending plans, with hopes of agreeing on a final document before the scheduled adjournment Saturday.

Negotiators could raise fees to soften the blow of the cuts, but they are not expected to increase taxes, heeding Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's threat to veto any new levies that he believes would hurt families struggling in the poor economy.

Regardless of the final tinkering, lawmakers from both parties say the unprecedented contraction of state spending is sure to be felt from Leesburg to Lee County. Hospital wings could close. Schools would probably reduce teaching staff. Criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney could appear in court without one. Private hospitals and nursing homes would pay more to provide health services to the poor and elderly. Funding for the arts might be left entirely to the private sector for the first time.

Or, if Virginians insist on saving certain programs, local governments will increasingly be forced to maintain them, perhaps by raising property or other taxes.

"What you see is a very significant reduction in the role the state will play as a funder of services that Virginians have come to expect," said Michael Cassidy, executive director of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. "At its core, what this budget represents is a stepping back from the state's role as a funding partner."

Many Democrats believe that the state's new spending priorities abandon its most vulnerable residents and will have an impact that could extend well beyond the current two-year budget cycle.

"That's my biggest concern -- that these cuts are never going to come back, and we're just going to leave these people basically helpless," said Del. Robin A. Abbott (Newport News).

But many Republicans believe that the budget crisis offers the long-awaited opportunity to pare down spending in a state that has taken on too much.

"There's no question this is scaling back," said Del. M. Kirkland Cox (Colonial Heights). "I think some of it is structural and won't come back."

Education cuts

In Martinsville, a former textile-manufacturing hub that has the state's highest unemployment rate -- 20.3 percent -- city School Superintendent Scott R. Kizner said his district faces painful choices no matter what negotiators do.

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