Many Virginia legislators have brushed aside a budget crunch that has led to the closing of a dozen Department of Motor Vehicles service centers, higher tuition at state colleges and cuts in Medicare benefits to try to preserve hundreds of projects and programs that collectively would cost the state about $2 billion.
One proposal, for example, would secure $500,000 for Wolf Trap. Another seeks $150,000 for the Freedom Museum in Manassas, plus $100,000 for the Fairfax Museum. Throw in $25,000 each for the Roanoke Symphony and the Elegba Folklore Society, millions of dollars for this program and that, and before long, the dollars add up.
The total is likely to rise this week, when a full list of Senate budget requests is released.
"I encourage members to submit things because they have an obligation to constituents," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who requested a $500,000 state grant for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts and other interests. "We're going to reshuffle that whole budget."
Even though lawmakers say that budget battles over such major issues as education and transportation largely have been decided, the billions sought makes clear that members intend to fight for dollars around the fringes.
Lawmakers must balance that against the reality that by the end of this year's General Assembly session on Feb. 22, they must cut $1.2 billion from the state's two-year, $50 billion budget, bringing the total in reductions over the past two years to $6 billion.
Some lawmakers criticized their colleagues, saying the proposals are shameless plays to hometown crowds in an election year.
"It borders on heresy," said Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford). "People are submitting budget amendments to tell the folks back home: 'I did what I could.' "
Chichester has discouraged senators from making such requests and said 15 funding proposals in the Senate -- compared with the usual 100 -- have been filed. He said that he would try to quash what he deems frivolous, money-grabbing attempts in his powerful committee, especially those for such non-state agencies as the Poquoson Museum and Shenandoah Shakespeare.
"It's onerous to the Senate that you could support something that's not affiliated with the state," he said.
Where some see pork barrel projects, however, others see community assets that could benefit from state support. Callahan, for instance, said he put in the request for Wolf Trap because it brings educational and cultural programs to Northern Virginia and deserves some money. Or at least a shot at some.
Kevin Hall, spokesman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said the budget amendments indicate a lack of understanding of the gravity of the state's fiscal situation. "It certainly wouldn't appear to demonstrate that members of the Assembly perceive that our needs outstrip what we can afford," he said.
Warner reversed his October decision to close the 12 DMV centers, yielding to pressure to find money somewhere, somehow. Warner has proposed using $6.4 million from a settlement with Merrill Lynch to reopen the centers, but he has indicated there isn't any loose change between the sofa cushions, under the car seat or anywhere else to even begin to fund all of the special interest projects on the table.
The proposals come at a time when the cuts already instituted are starting to crimp a range of state services that aren't as immediately noticeable as the long lines stretching around DMVs.
For example: Virginia has closed some of its mountains and meadows. Libraries have reduced hours and are offering fewer books, magazines and instructional programs. Museums have cut hours and programs. It's harder and costlier to get a bottle of liquor. And those heading to prison shouldn't expect three squares on Sundays and holidays, as the state serves just brunch and dinner those days.
Other cuts loom. About 70 percent of the state's soil and water conservation specialists, for instance, will be let go if Warner's budget is adopted.
"We're definitely cutting into some of our major programs and operations," said Joseph H. Maroon, director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, who, like many other state agency heads, said he has lost about half his budget.
Maroon is trying to preserve funding for the conservation positions, while seeking money for four state parks that have severely scaled back operations -- Sky Meadows in Fauquier County, Caledon Natural Area in King George County, False Cape in Virginia Beach and the Southwest Virginia Museum in Big Stone Gap. The parks are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and are staffed by a single employee during daylight hours the rest of the week.
Arlington County library director Ann M. Friedman, who tracks budget issues for the Virginia Library Association, said the cuts have forced most county systems to lay off employees, halt periodical purchases and, in some cases, cease buying books.
Friedman said she has gotten by in Arlington this fiscal year by not filling five positions, but she expects to have to stop buying books when the new budget cycle starts in July.
"We are stretching ourselves thinner and thinner," said Friedman, who expressed even more concern about libraries that "have very little money . . . and are the access point to the Internet and are fundamental building blocks" in rural communities.
Some of the hundreds of budget amendments seek to secure money for such causes as parks, libraries and other struggling services. Agency directors and legislators said they hope there is a way to squeeze some money from somewhere.
"I think, perhaps, we should give them something," Callahan said. "We can get them something, maybe only $50,000."