Showdown likely in Virginia legislature over retirement, education and health

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 10:13 PM

RICHMOND - Budget writers in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate unveiled competing plans Sunday to amend the state's budget, setting up a likely clash in the divided legislature in coming weeks over retirement funding for state employees and whether to begin restoring some cuts made to education and health care amid the economic downturn.

After wielding the knife for several years as state revenue plummeted during the economic decline, the legislature has some money to spend - the result of growing state tax collections.

Since December, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has twice informed legislators that he thought revenue would be healthier over the budget cycle than he had once predicted, freeing $489 million in new money - $152 million announced Friday.

Leaders in the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee and the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee, which approved proposed budgets Sunday, urged caution, noting the soft economy and coming years' looming government obligations.

"While our economy continues to grow," said House Appropriations Chairman Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), "the fact is that we must continue to be ever vigilant."

The General Assembly has sliced billions of dollars' worth of state services in recent years. The two-year, $78 billion budget that is being amended pared back spending to 2006 levels as the population and demand for services for the needy ballooned.

The two chambers must reconcile differences in how they want to distribute the trickle of new money before the General Assembly adjourns Feb. 26.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee agreed to reject a proposal advanced by McDonnell when he announced amendments to the budget in December that they spend $150 million in surplus cash on transportation. His suggestion was accepted by the House Appropriations Committee.

Senators have long said road money should come from dedicated revenue streams, not the state's general coffers.

"These dollars are better spent repairing the damage to our recession-racked education, public-safety and health-care programs rather than filling potholes," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

In part because of that position, the Senate was able to redirect about $100 million in new funding for public education and $105 million to restore deep cuts to Medicaid.

The House cut $93 million from K-12 education, said Robley S. Jones, director of government affairs for the Virginia Education Association. But it included $66 million to offer local governments the funding necessary to pay a 2 percent bonus for teachers.

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