General Assembly Report column by Del. Ben Cline
This past Sunday was “Budget Sunday,” the day that the House and Senate appropriations committees released their amendments to the two-year budget that the governor introduced last December. Legislators, lobbyists and other groups with a stake in the budget waited in line for hours to get copies of the amendments and watched as the committees approved them. However, anyone hoping for extra funding probably left unhappy on this Budget Sunday.
A combination of the slowing national economy and inaccurate revenue estimates by Finance Secretary Jody Wagner left the committees facing a $1 billion shortfall to make up with their amendments. In response to this news last week, Gov. Kaine proposed reducing funding levels for education by over $200 million, eliminating proposed teachers’ raises, and cutting his proposed funding levels for higher education. Fortunately, the House Appropriations Committee rejected the governor’s proposals and included full state funding for K-12 education along with a 2 percent raise at the end of this year for teachers and state employees.
So how did the House avoid the reductions that the governor recommended? Quite simply, we decided to focus state spending on core services rather than non-essential spending and new programs. Gone from the governor’s budget is over $2 million in funding for pork-barrel projects and “non-state agencies” like museums and nonprofits. Also gone are projects like a new office building for the state tax department. Asking our teachers to take a backseat to the tax collectors in Richmond sure doesn’t make sense to me.
We also fund core education and health-care services by scaling back the governor’s proposals for new programs, including government-funded pre-K and health-insurance programs for the middle class. By scaling these back, the House was able to avoid the governor’s cuts to colleges and universities that would have resulted in higher tuition for families. We also were able to use the funds to open up more waiver slots for Medicaid coverage for the mentally retarded. These are the core education and health care services that the state must fund instead of new programs that we should not be funding, especially in this economic climate.
I introduced several budget amendments to the governor’s budget, three of which were accepted by the Appropriations Committee. The first would increase trooper patrols on I-81, the second would fund an additional deputy sheriff in Buena Vista, and the third would help small farmers by ensuring that the National Animal ID System remains voluntary. Additional funds for projects including the Jackson River Governor’s School and the Central Virginia Computer Crimes Task Force were not accepted, but hopefully the economy will make these projects affordable in the future.
I spent most of the past week presenting my bills that have passed the House to various Senate committees for consideration. Because the Senate is under a new Democratic majority, the committees all have new chairmen and several new members. In addition, senators are now presenting their bills to House committees. Since the Democrats now control the Senate, most of the bills we are considering in the House are Democratic bills. And although we might not agree on every issue, I am enjoying getting to know the new chairmen and searching for common ground on those issues that are important to our part of Virginia.
Ben Cline represents the 24th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.