Despite the recession and a drop in state revenues, Virginia apparently will be able to survive the next fiscal year without the agony of major cuts in public education and a freeze on state employe salaries, two key legislative committees have concluded.
Both the Senate Finance and the House Appropriations committees have come up with enough additional revenue to restore nearly half of the $175 million in budget cuts proposed last month by Gov. Charles S. Robb. The bulk of the new money unearthed by the two committees -- $86 million in the Senate and $64 million in the House -- will be earmarked for education, an area where Robb proposed more than $70 million of his cuts.
The committees have also recommended more money for state employes, funds that would boost workers' pay by a minimum of 3 percent.
Robb has reserved comment on the committees' actions, completed late last night, urging that the legislature act with "fiscal restraint." The budget this year is complicated by the Senate's decision to consider spending plans at the same time as the House, heightening rivalries between the two chambers.
Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been gloating over his committee's success in finding new money in the state's $13.7 billion biennial budget to cover the deficit without major cuts in education.
"There's a whole lot more lying around here," said Willey. "We could have found more if we wanted to. Maybe the governor didn't look as hard as we did."
Robb, who has made public education a priority of his administration, had spared school aid, which is sent back to the local governments, from his first round of budget cuts last spring. In his budget amendments presented to the General Assembly last month, Robb reluctantly asked for a $20 million cut in school aid, which would have effectively rolled back a promised 10 percent increase in salary for classroom teachers to 6.4 percent.
Higher education, which had been cut 5 percent in the first round of cuts, was also to be hit by a proposed 6 percent cut this year--prompting cries from the colleges and their supporters in the legislature that higher education had carried an unfair share of the state's budget reductions.
Answering these pleas, the Senate bill would restore $16 million to aid to schools, enough to raise teachers' salaries 8.5 percent; $15 million to higher education and add $20.9 million to raise salaries for state employes 3 percent across the board.
The House proposal would put $23.9 million back into aid to schools for the full 10 percent rise in teachers' salaries; $10.6 million into higher education and $30 million into the state payroll to pick up employes' contributions to the state retirement system, a move estimated to give employes a minimum 5 percent increase in take-home pay.
"The spending patterns were rather similar," said House Appropriations Chairman Del. Richard Bagley (D-Hampton) of the two budget proposals. One major difference between the two versions was the House's use of a special alcohol beverage commission fund to fund programs--unlike the Senate which saved the $15.8 million for the state's contingency fund.
Both the House and Senate relied on $16.4 million collected through an acceleration of prepaid estimated taxes from corporations and individuals. In other areas, the Senate cut deeper into the Department of Corrections than did the House -- one possible area of contention between the two chambers.
The Senate Finance Committee, ruled by the autocratic hand of Willey and Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews, was the first to release its budget late last night. The appropriations committee, which until this year handled the initial budget review alone, was slower, but more open in its deliberations.
The Senate will debate its budget proposal on Wednesday, with the House budget debate now scheduled for Thursday. Any differences in the two versions will be resolved by a six-member conference committee that will meet behind closed doors.
Early in the session, legislators had made it clear that restoration of Robb's cuts in public and higher education would be their top priority. By pumping more money into school aid last year and by making promises for the current year, Robb and the legislature had raised hopes among educators which the lawmakers, all up for reelection this fall, are not eager to dash.
State employes also found a sympathetic ear in the legislature. Robb's proposal had frozen their salaries at current levels for an estimated $35.8 million savings. With both houses urging an increase in state employe pay, few expect employe groups to be disappointed.
"I'm very pleased they found more money to enhance remuneration for college faculty one way or the other," said Bill Stepka, a lobbyist for college professors, "but I don't think it is wise to second-guess what the conference committee is going to do."