RICHMOND -- Lawmakers will convene in Richmond on Wednesday burdened with the knowledge that initiatives to ease traffic congestion, build schools, improve education and bolster security will all be met with the same refrain: There's no money.
That won't stop Virginia's 140 legislators from proposing thousands of bills during the 46 days they will meet this year. Legislation already filed would require parental consent for abortions, create a statewide "Amber Alert" to help find missing children, ban BB guns from school grounds, and require schools to teach a "Virginia Statement of Values" and post it in all classrooms.
But the focus, according to lawmakers and officials in the administration of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), will be on finding ways to spend less.
"That's what I'm going to be involved in," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "I don't think you are going to see any new initiatives in there at all unless they are initiatives that save money. Anything that is going to cost more is doomed for failure."
Warner's budget, offered just days before Christmas, cuts spending and raises fees across state government in order to close the remainder of a $2 billion shortfall brought on by a slumping economy. Now the GOP-led General Assembly will have to decide how much of Warner's budget to adopt and whether it can find other ways to balance spending with revenues that cause less pain.
In his plan, Warner proposes to cut state aid for local government programs, reduce spending by state agencies and freeze the amount of state money that goes to hospitals and nursing homes. He also proposes to let another year go by with no pay increases for state employees.
Warner will fight as well for passage of dozens of proposals aimed at merging state agencies, imposing new budget practices, restructuring the financially strapped Virginia Department of Transportation and changing the state constitution so that governors can succeed themselves. He has abandoned his oft-repeated criticism of using one-time gimmicks to balance the budget, turning himself to such techniques to save nearly $750 million.
"I could not, and would not, construct a budget that reduces funding for public education, or one that lays off state troopers and deputy sheriffs, or one that cuts funding for highway construction or maintenance, or one that creates gaping holes in the social safety net," Warner told legislative leaders.
Some lawmakers, including several from Northern Virginia, have said they will push for higher taxes to pay for services that would otherwise have to be pared back.
State. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) wants to add a tax on cigarette manufacturing, and Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax) would allow Fairfax and Arlington counties to increase their local cigarette tax from 5 cents to 40 cents.
And Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax) says he wants to raise the 4.5-cent state sales tax by a penny to pay for teacher salaries and education. Dillard said Warner's budget, while not devastating for schools, does nothing to close a longstanding gap between the amount of money provided and what schools need.
"Don't forget," said Dillard, who chairs the House Education Committee, "we are still $560 million short of what we are legally obligated to pay for education. Education is still facing major deficits in what we ought to be doing. And that doesn't include things like giving teachers a raise."
Conservatives in the General Assembly, who are more numerous after several special elections last year, reject tax increases.
State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), who helped defeat the transportation sales tax proposal in Northern Virginia on Nov. 5, said higher taxes are "off the table" for now. But he said he feels obligated to search for solutions to the region's traffic mess.
"I certainly owe it to my constituents, and all of Northern Virginia, really, to make it a priority of mine," he said.
Cuccinelli said he would work with slow-growth advocates on proposals to help ensure that adequate public facilities such as roads and schools are built even as growth occurs. But he said any coalition uniting anti-tax lawmakers such as himself and slow-growth activists could easily break apart.
"The big issue is, are they going to stay away from trampling on property rights? As long as they do that, I'm going to be a potential ally for them," he said, noting that he opposed zoning changes in Loudoun County that made some land less valuable. "If that's what they have in mind, they are going to find me on the other side."
Cuccinelli said he would also work to change the way transportation money is distributed in the state. Several lawmakers have said they want to increase the amount spent on road and transit projects in Northern Virginia by changing the state formulas that determine how much each region gets.
But many senior legislators are wary of that approach, which they said would pit Northern Virginia against the rest of the state.
"When you get down to it, they will realize that the share that Northern Virginia gets right now is substantial," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "The amount of additional revenue that we could get with a funding formula change would not be worth the fight that would certainly result."
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who also opposed the transportation referendum, said he will offer a proposal to skim about $50 million off the top of transportation funds to provide Northern Virginia extra help for the next two years. He will also suggest privatizing some VDOT functions.
And Marshall will be one of several delegates and senators pushing a conservative social agenda during the 2003 session.
"Abortion, school choice -- they'll be dealt with," said Marshall, who plans once again to offer a bill banning partial-birth abortion.
Of the bill-a-minute session, he said: "It's always fun."