General Assembly Report column by Del. Ben Cline
The adjournment of the 2008 General Assembly session came five days later than planned, but like all good things, it was worth waiting for. As I wrote last week, the session was extended by a few days to give our negotiators a little more time to work out the differences between the budgets produced by the Republican House and the Democrat Senate.
The few extra days was time well spent, because the final budget received near-universal support. In fact, the bill unanimously passed the House by a vote of 99-0. In the Senate, the budget passed by a more narrow (but still bipartisan) vote of 26-14. I attribute the broad bipartisan support for this budget to the leadership of Del. Lacey Putney, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. His nearly 50 years of legislative experience was definitely put to good use, as he was able to bring all sides together to forge a solid budget agreement.
The 2008-2010 state budget is a fiscally responsible budget that focuses funding on the core functions of government, namely education, transportation and law enforcement. The slowing economy has reduced expected tax revenues and forced budget writers to tighten their belts and choose among their priorities. The budget holds the growth in state spending for the next two years to just 3 percent, a rate that accounts for inflation and population growth but does not allow for any new programs or expanded services.
Unlike the original budget passed by the Senate, the final agreement does not raise taxes. It also does not raid transportation dollars for new programs, as the governor originally proposed to do back in December. It uses less debt than the governor’s proposal and withdraws 30 percent less from the Rainy Day Fund than what the governor proposed.
At the same time, the budget still provides a 2 percent raise for teachers in 2009 and for state employees in 2008 and ’09, provides over $40 million in funding for mental-health programs in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedies, and provides funding for 600 mental-retardation waivers to allow those in need to receive services at home instead of in institutions. The budget increases funding for our state universities and keeps tuition and fee increases for in-state undergraduate students to no more than 3 percent.
So how were we able to provide raises and increase spending on these programs while not raising taxes, maxing out our debt limit, or emptying the Rainy Day Fund? We did it by focusing spending on the core services of government instead of spreading limited resources across too many priorities. We did not fund any new programs that the governor proposed, such as expanded pre-K services or health insurance subsidies for the middle class. We also eliminated millions of dollars in funding for line-item non-government projects, much of which was “pork-barrel” spending. Although it took an economic slowdown to force fiscal restraint upon the budget writers, the end result is a responsible document that can serve as a good budget guide in the future.
Once the budget agreement was finished, we were able to finally adjourn the 2008 session. While several legislative priorities have been accomplished, a few important ones are unfortunately still outstanding. Because senior negotiators were busy working on the budget, they have not been able to finish negotiations on a bill to issue millions of dollars in bonds for construction projects at our state colleges and universities, including several projects at VMI. In addition, local disagreements have blocked consensus on the appointment of over 30 judicial vacancies. Finally, transportation has been left temporarily unaddressed, as many in the House and Senate are still reeling from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the regional taxing authorities in Northern Virginia and Tidewater were unconstitutional (a good decision in my view that upholds the idea of “no taxation without representation.”).
Because the bond package and judicial appointments are important issues that must be addressed as quickly as possible, the General Assembly called itself back into special session shortly after adjourning the 2008 regular session.
Even though we are in special session, I’ve now returned home to Rockbridge County full time. You may recall from past special sessions, meetings are generally infrequent; legislators get back to their normal lives back home, but we remain available on kind of an ‘on-call’ basis. As committees need to meet, we are called back to Richmond and typically floor sessions follow.
At this point, we’re also still expected back to Richmond in April for our annual “veto” or “reconvened” session – which is the one-day session where we approve or reject any amendments the governor has recommended on bills we passed during the regular session. We also have the opportunity to override any bill he may have vetoed. So, since we had already planned to be there anyway, we scheduled our special session to convene immediately following this reconvened ‘veto’ session.
Follow all that? It can get confusing. The important thing to know is that when we reconvene next month in Richmond, I’ll be there working hard to make sure your interests and our shared principles are represented. In the meantime, feel free to call me with questions or make an appointment to meet with me in either my Amherst or Buena Vista office. My district phone number is 434.946-9908, and my e-mail is [email protected]. I look forward to seeing you around the district.
Ben Cline represents the 24th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.