The good news on the state budget this week is that the bad news won't be awful.
So say state officials, political leaders of both parties and spokesmen for a number of special-interest groups pleading their cases in a last-minute public relations blitz before Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) presents his budget to the General Assembly tomorrow.
Even Warner, the governor of gloom in a year of unrelieved budget cuts and forced layoffs, sounded faintly chipper about the commonwealth's fiscal state.
"Friday will not be as bad as people expected," Warner said, adding in the next breath that there will definitely be additional layoffs and cuts on top of the 1,837 layoffs and $858 million in cuts he ordered in October.
Nonetheless, Warner senses an uptick in the Virginia economy, and he expects state revenues to perk up enough in the new year to avoid devastating reductions in K-12 education, public safety and transportation.
"I think we've bottomed out," Warner said in an interview. "I'm seeing November numbers that, while not optimistic, don't make me more pessimistic, at least.
"It's not yet to recovery, but . . . the revenue projections we're working on are probably going to hold us through the next 18 months," Warner said.
Warner would not discuss his budget in detail, but after the bruising year he has had, finding another $1 billion or so to trim from the state's $25 billion-a-year spending program was -- while no walk in the park -- a relatively straightforward task.
After all, the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled legislature spent this year doing a lot of the deep cutting, closing a roughly $5 billion shortfall between revenues and expenditures.
The results are being felt across the state in small annoyances and major disruptions: in two-hour waits at the local Department of Motor Vehicles counter; in curtailed hours at grand urban museums and lowly cultural centers in rural areas; and among state workers whose lives have been turned upside down by their forced separation from their employer, the state government.
The saga is far from over.
Even if programs that Virginians care about suffer only limited upheavals in 2003, the dialogue between all the interested parties and the powers that be in Richmond will never be the same. Playing defense -- that is, protecting a given funding stream for a worthy program and deflecting the budget ax as it falls -- will now be a permanent condition for everyone who gets a penny from state government.
Virginia politics and the budget often move together in an up-and-down ballet, but the trough in this particular cycle is so deep -- the steepest drop in state revenue growth in 40 years -- and came so quickly after a record-setting boom that it changes the rules of the game, probably permanently.
Warner is no Scrooge, but this unsettled time only reinforces his government "reform" agenda, to the extent it forces fellow leaders and taxpayers to confront the things they truly care about -- and those they can no longer afford.
So far, his conversation about state priorities has been largely one-sided and, in the case of the defeat of the sales tax proposals last month, flawed in its delivery.
But something in Warner's message is creeping into the subconscious of Virginia's power establishment. Here's a sampling of voices this week from three politically powerful lobbying groups:
"Virginians must decide, and decide soon, if they are willing to make the public investments that will keep our institutions both excellent and affordable," said a joint statement by the state's 16 university and 23 community college presidents. "The issue is what kind of state Virginians want to have in the future."
Larry Sartoris, leading a new alliance of hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacists who are campaigning against health-care cuts, said: "Our coalition is made up of health-care providers intent on educating Virginians and our policymakers about . . . how best to further our state's investment in this vital and essential aspect of our culture.
"This coalition was not formed as a one-year deal," Sartoris said at a state Capitol news conference. "We want health-care needs to be elevated to the same level of commitment as other core services," such as education.
Jean Bankos, president of the state's largest teachers union, made her pitch this way: "Education is the number one concern of voters, but that doesn't seem to be the predominant political view at the moment. There seems to be a disconnect between elected legislators and the needs of education."
"They just don't get it," Bankos said Monday. "We've got to push the envelope. We've got to make people uncomfortable with the status quo."
Come tomorrow, the status quo may be looking pretty good to Bankos, Sartoris, the college presidents and all the other advocates with business before the state. They may be thankful that Warner's budget leaves them unscathed -- or only nicked here and there.
But those advocates and their colleagues and competitors are voicing an important point that Warner wants to talk about for the rest of his term. In an era of static resources, why not at least begin the overdue conversation about reallocating them to programs that matter most?
The 2003 session of the General Assembly will not provide a complete answer, but it may be the place to start.