Local Commentary

Delegate Hull’s Richmond Report

Prelude to a Fight

On Monday, the so-called money committees of the General Assembly held a joint meeting in Richmond to hear from Governor Kaine.

Receiving his budget were the 15 members of the Senate Finance Committee and the 22 members each of the House Appropriations and Finance Committees.

This is the annual ritual where the governor submits budget plans which will be acted upon in the upcoming legislative session.

The 2008 session of the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, January 9 and is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday, March 8.

It is the even-year “long session” because it lasts for 60 days, while the odd-year “short session” lasts for about 45 days.

The reason that the upcoming session will be longer is that we will enact a new two-year budget, as well as make adjustments to the current budget.

The way the budget cycle works in Virginia, this is the only full spending plan that is truly a product of a sitting governor.

Two years from now, the new two-year budget for the incoming chief executive will be proposed as the current governor prepares to leave office.

Therefore, this is considered the budget that will establish a legacy for each governor, in this case Democratic Governor Tim Kaine.

The Republican opposition in the General Assembly also knows that, so they started the verbal jabbing for the budget fight ahead.

The Ring Has Changed

While the political skirmishing is assured, this budget fight will occur with a different lay-out than before.

The GOP will only control the House of Delegates because of the results of the 2007 election contests.

It is a conservative bunch which lost four incumbents in November, whittling its majority to 54.

But, their moderate Republican colleagues in the Senate lost control all together, further isolating the House majority.

Skirmishing with the Senate is old hat for the House GOP majority, but this time they face Democrats in control.

This not only changes legislative dynamics, but it is unknown territory for the House leadership.

So, after Governor Kaine’s speech, his Secretary of Finance got pummeled with pointed questions.

How Bad Will It Be?

Governor Kaine had some ambitious goals when he took office, most notably expanding a state-funded pre-kindergarten program.

Not only have House Republicans repeatedly criticized him on this issue, but there is not enough money to do it.

The shortage in funding is due to the decline in state revenue because of the housing slump and mortgage disaster.

These conditions are projected to continue into the next fiscal year, so the Governor offered only a modest expansion of the pre-K program.

During the current 2008 fiscal year, revenue growth was predicted to be 5.4-percent over the year before.

But, growth turned out to be 3.8-percent instead and that brought revenues in $641 million below estimates.

Governor Kaine and his staff made numerous spending cuts to reduce the shortfall, but he proposed tapping into the “rainy day fund” to plug the rest of the gap.

House Republicans criticized this, even though the revenue decline triggers the statutory requirements for such a draw-down.

"We're not having an economic downturn," said the GOP House Majority Leader in arguing against using the rainy day fund.

Yet, Republican leaders then said that Governor Kaine should not have proposed the modest new programs because of a possible recession.

One GOP official even accused Governor Kaine of being on a “spending frenzy,” although new program spending consists mainly of pilot projects.

It looks like the fisticuffs will continue in January as both political parties prepare for a gubernatorial election in 2009.

I guess that the silly season is starting early. Yet, while you still have to pay taxes over the next two years, Governor Kaine did not propose any new ones.

That is one blessing that we can take into this holiday season!