It’s good to be home again now that the 2008 regular Session has concluded, just a few days over the 60-day limit.
In a time of diminishing revenues, the General Assembly was able to adopt a budget that meets many needs. K-12 education was protected; funds were included for the biennial rebenchmarking of public education costs, an updating of the state’s share of the Standards of Quality. Teachers will receive a 2% salary increase in July, 2009. In addition there will be a modest increase in the number of at-risk four-year-olds who will be enrolled in preschool.
For higher education, there is some additional funding for operating expenses of colleges and universities, a 2% increase in faculty salaries each year, and nearly $33 million for research over the biennium.
Mental health was a top priority this year, especially after the tragic event at Virginia Tech. Along with comprehensive legislation to reform the system in a number of ways, the budget included an additional $42 million to improve emergency mental health services.
The budget includes additional funding for foster care and adoption services; funding for health care “safety net” activities including community health centers and free clinics; and provides $41.6 million for 600 new mental retardation slots.
In the natural resources area, $20 million was provided for agricultural best management practices that will reduce non-point sources pollution.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that these improvements could only be financed by making cuts in other areas.
The 5% cuts the Governor made in most agency budgets last fall have been continued forward into the next biennium, along with some additional across-the-board reductions for state agencies and a small reduction in local aid.
Further, many capital projects that would have been paid for in cash if revenues had come in as originally forecast will now be part of a bond package. A number of savings strategies have been employed to further reduce the reliance on General Fund revenues.
Now that the Democrats have a majority in the Senate, I was appointed to the Senate Finance Committee. I chair one of its subcommittees – Economic Development and Natural Resources – and serve on two others: Health and Human Services; and Transportation. I am gaining much more detailed knowledge of the agencies and their budgets.
One of our major tasks was to agree on a revenue forecast. The Senate used the forecast presented by the Governor. His estimate was based on the recommendations from the GACRE (Governor’s Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates) though he took the lower of the estimates they provided.
Some Senate Republicans believed the revenue estimate should be even lower, although there was never a reason given except that they felt it was too optimistic. Of course, they may be right, but the Senate can only operate on objective evidence.
I was disappointed that 14 Senate Republicans, including the leadership, used that as a reason to vote against the budget even though all members of the House and 26 Senators voted for the budget as it is our responsibility to do.