Dozens of advocates for mental health services, holding signs and standing with developmentally disabled children at their sides, pleaded with state lawmakers yesterday to protect what one termed "our most vulnerable citizens" from Virginia's budget crisis.

Many at the Northern Virginia budget hearing said they were grateful to be spared in Gov. Mark R. Warner's most recent budget proposal. But they said the 10 percent funding cuts Warner ordered in October jeopardized the care of patients and the state's move to community-based services.

"I can't tell if I'm crazy or the system's crazy," said Diane Engster of the Northern Virginia Mental Health Consumers Association. The "cuts in services will make the lives of my friends miserable."

The advocates were among nearly 100 people representing schools, the homeless, arts, farming and other interests who spoke at the hearing, held at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.

The House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees sponsored four such hearings across the state yesterday to hear public comments before legislators begin the annual General Assembly session in Richmond on Jan. 8.

In the latest round of budget cutting brought on by the sluggish economy, the assembly must close a $1.2 billion shortfall that threatens all government services covered by Virginia's $50 billion, two-year spending plan. Maryland also will begin a legislative session in which the assembly must close a $1.2 billion shortfall in its $22 billion budget for next year.

In releasing his latest plan for balancing the budget, Warner (D) said he would spare school funding, public safety and transportation from cuts, but his proposal is open to debate in the General Assembly. The governor's budget plan includes less money for localities, fewer subsidies for some Medicaid providers, fee increases and agency consolidations.

In October, Warner took some budget-balancing steps he was legally entitled to make without General Assembly approval, reducing the expected shortfall by $858 million. He raised college tuition, reduced hours at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, cut arts programs and reduced health care funding, among other fixes. When those cuts were announced, health care advocates said they would result in reduced quality of care and long waits for patients.

Yesterday, they told legislators that the cuts will eliminate many programs, forcing users to fend for themselves while also slowing the move from institutional care to community-based care, which advocates consider a better environment for treatment.

Many of the speakers punctuated their remarks by holding signs that read: "Virginia Mental Health 43rd and Falling," a reference to Virginia's national rank in mental health funding.

Ellen Qualls, Warner's spokeswoman, said: "I think it's understandable that mental health advocates would have anxiety right now about budget cuts, but the governor has done his best to preserve direct care to patients. In a cycle where we had to take $5.8 billion out of the budget in 11 months, there were some very hard choices made."

Jeannie Cummins, of the Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens, told lawmakers that the cuts have "shredded our safety net. Where will people live safely when caregivers are gone? I call on you to be lifesavers for our most vulnerable citizens."

Caitlin Binning, representing the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said, "The proposed plan is completely inadequate to make the transition to community care safely."

Mental health advocates joined supporters of the homeless as well as cooperative extension agents and others in calling for a raise in taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to fund their programs.

"I demand a real investment plan," Binning said. "As a recent lung cancer survivor, I'd say sin tax away."

On behalf of cooperative extension services, Stephen Ryner echoed that sentiment. "We are hurting," he said. "It's amazing that a state like Virginia did not have the foresight that we could have some problems by cutting taxes. Maybe above all we should look at increasing nuisance taxes."

In contrast to previous years, the hearing did not draw a large number of advocates for more public school funding, probably because Warner's budget proposal spared them from cuts.

"The school board is grateful that the governor protected state aid," Cathy Belter, legislative director for the Fairfax County School Board, told the legislators. "I strongly encourage the General Assembly to respect the governor's amendments" to the budget.

Nonetheless, Belter said an imbalance remains in the way the state raises money and funds education, and she called on lawmakers to change the tax code.

Sue Capers, of the Virginia Coalition for the Homeless, said homelessness is skyrocketing because of a growing gap between wages and housing prices.

"I urge you in the strongest voice possible to support a rental assistance program" to help solve this problem, Capers said.

She acknowledged the difficulty of proposing a new program during a year of penny-pinching but said that "ultimately, it would be less expensive."

Marilyn Gould, of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, tried to appeal to the bottom-line mentality of lawmakers, saying that cuts in the arts would only hurt the state's finances.

The arts are "a billion-dollar industry," she said. "It provides 18,000 full- and part-time jobs. The proposed cuts would mean the economic impacts would be significantly lower."

Virginia lawmakers listen to speakers at a public hearing on the state budget, above. At left, Jeannie Cummins of the Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens demonstrates her belief that cuts have "shredded our safety net. Where will people live safely when caregivers are gone?" she asked.