VIRGINIANS -- especially poor Virginians -- have been suffering the effects of misguided state parsimony for years. Now, in tight times, they are suffering even more. Only hours into the new legislative session in Richmond last week, the politics of priorities was in play: Before Republican lawmakers could make political hay out of Gov. Mark R. Warner's decision to close a dozen Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices, the governor relented, announcing that he had found $6.4 million from a legal settlement to cover the cost. Hooray; an inconvenience has been averted. But there was no similar outcry, and no comparable rescue, for the thousands of vulnerable Virginians who will suffer because of cuts in state spending.
By session's end, the legislature and the governor will have cut nearly $6 billion out of Virginia's $51 billion two-year budget. The cause is years of underfunding and politically motivated tax cuts, aggravated by plummeting revenue as economic growth stalled. Services that were seriously underfunded long before this latest round of cutting are set for still more damage:
* Mental health and mental retardation. A cut of more than 10 percent in already deficient funding -- Virginia ranks near the bottom of all states in funding for the mentally disabled -- will drastically reduce programs for about 315,000 adults and children with serious mental illnesses and for about 68,000 retarded people, more than 4,000 of them on waiting lists for help.
* Environmental programs. In a state that has been spending less than a penny of every budget dollar on natural resources, spending was cut in half last year, to its lowest level since 1984. Water pollution programs, including assistance to farmers to curb runoff, will be reduced.
* Education. Cuts in state aid to community colleges and universities -- which are experiencing swelling enrollments and, at community colleges, waiting lists of students seeking to transfer to state universities -- will mean still fewer openings, larger classes, higher tuition (with more recruiting of out-of-state students, who pay more) and cutbacks in research and community programs. Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, reports that GMU is taking a $30 million cut in the current two-year budget cycle, reducing state funding per in-state student from $7,528 to $5,250, while enrollment is heading toward an increase of about 3,000 over the same period. The University of Virginia's state funding has been cut 31.8 percent and now accounts for 9 percent of its budget. The College of William and Mary has eliminated nearly 50 courses or sections.
The legislature can and will revise some budget numbers, but without more revenue the options are not great. The car tax reductions, the irresponsible legacy of former governor James S. Gilmore III and a willing General Assembly, continue to hurt. An ill-considered move to repeal the estate tax would make things worse. Meanwhile, Virginians pay the lowest cigarette tax in the country, a laughable 2.5 cents per pack.
Well, never mind. Ex-felons trying to put their lives in order may receive no help, the mentally ill may be left to fend for themselves, and Virginia may squander its Jeffersonian reputation for high-quality universities. But at least those DMV lines won't be too long.