N. Va. Lawmakers Warn of Ugly Session in Richmond

$3 Billion in Cuts as ‘Philosophical Divide’ Persists

It’s going to be an ugly 45-day legislative session that gets underway in Richmond next week. Decisions on almost $3 billion in state budget cuts, due to the economic downturn, face the same “philosophical divide” between liberals and moderates, on one side, and arch conservatives on the other that has been particularly nasty in Virginia, and in the face of deep cuts could get even worse.

So said three Northern Virginia legislators at a town hall meeting in McLean last weekend.

But Governor Tim Kaine, recently announced as chair of the Democratic National Committee, brought his statewide tour to unveil his legislative priorities to Northern Virginia this week, and suggested that there may be progress in attaining support from disparate groups at least for some controversial issues, such as his call for a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants, and allowing for free absentee voting without requiring an explanation for not being able to vote on election day.

Three Northern Virginia lawmakers used a wide array of terms to describe the extent of difficulty they will face with the necessary budget cuts at the McLean Community Center last Saturday. Delegates Jim Scott and Margaret Vanderhye and State Sen. Janet Howell used words like “severe,” “dangerous,” “very trying,” “brutal,” “draconian,” “drastic” and “never before” as they outlined the grim prospects to nearly 100 citizens who showed up.

There remains a “philosophical cleavage” that could make matters worse in Richmond than they otherwise might be, Sen. Howell said. However, legislators from Northern Virginia appear ready to concede that cuts in state funding for education will harm rural areas of the state more heavily dependent on state help, and be willing to accept a disproportionate allocation of those funds to mitigate the budget-cutting consequences in those areas. Del. Scott referenced this, citing the budget-cutting implications for his rural home town of Galax, Virginia.

A legislative advocate for Northern Virginia school systems also hinted at that in comments to the News-Press last week.

Scott said that cuts in education, including both public and higher education, and in Medicaid pose the gravest consequences, noting that Virginia is already 48th among the 50 U.S. states in its Medicaid support for low-income families. Desperately needed funds for transportation, he added, will also take a big hit.

Howell suggested that the budget numbers may be even worse than currently estimated. In the state’s $33 billion budget, $2 billion in cuts have already been made, and another $2.9 billion are still to be cut, she noted. “These are very trying times,” she said. “Brutal cuts” will have “a very negative impact on the quality of life in Virginia.”

Vanderhye said that while things promise to be tough, the state retains its Triple-A bond rating, and things are “not as dire as in some other states.” Still, she conceded, there will be “draconian cuts.”

Criminal justice consultant Al Schuman challenged the lawmakers at the forum to address an “overall reform of the corrections system” in Virginia to redress the impact caused when Gov. George Allen abolished parole.

Following on initiatives being taken at the federal level by Virginia U.S. Senator Jim Webb, he said that drug courts and other means of dealing with non-violent offenders, including by bringing back parole, will relieve the fiscal pressures caused by bloated and overcrowded prisons, which promises to only get worse in economic hard times.

Howell said that an additional $1 billion called for to manage the corrections system underscores the problem, noting that 17 percent of persons in the state’s prisons are there for being mentally ill, and that the $26,000 cost per capita of everyone detained in the corrections system is “extremely expensive.”

On the other hand, she said, community services programs, to deal with the problems of drug abuse, prisoner re-entry and post-probation correctional education are severely under-funded.

Among the bills that Howell will introduce offer access to higher education for returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, bio-tech and science tax credits for businesses partnering with state universities, and the ability of employers to offer insurance to others besides only a spouse or dependent child of an employee. That proposal for “domestic partner” coverage will surely run afoul of the “philosophical divide” in Richmond, she noted.

In addition to the state lawmakers, Fairfax Supervisors John Faust and Sharon Bulova, running for chair of the County Board, were present and made comments at the town hall meeting.

A public hearing featuring all members of the Fairfax County state legislative delegation will be held this Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Fairfax Government Center.