The Sunday before last, at 6 p.m., the legislative session in Richmond-my first as the Delegate from the 38th District–came to a close with the crack of Speaker Howell’s gavel. House Republicans had just unanimously voted for the budget, grudgingly accepting a few concessions to common sense and the common good demanded by the Democratic-controlled Senate in final negotiations the night before.
Governor McDonnell’s name will be affixed to the legislation, and it will be his appointees trying to keep tabs on the Commonwealth’s capable civil servant managers as they do their best to mitigate the budget’s corrosive effects on Virginia citizens. But, this is not Governor McDonnell’s budget. In fact, this budget is mostly Governor Kaine’s original plan, surgically altered by Speaker Howell and a small team of loyalists. This group is smart, very effective and political. Very, very political.
Needless to say, I am unhappy with the outcome. I voted against it, because I disagree with it in most every respect: the funding choices, the budgeting gimmickry and the almost totally opaque process by which it was assembled.
This last point is particularly important to me. As a three-term Mason District School Board member, I was a consistent advocate for openness, public discussion and deliberation by the School Board and community participation in a budgeting process that stretched over many months. My experience of this year’s deliberations in Richmond couldn’t have been more different. Frankly, I don’t know how the process unfolded in the “backroom”, or whether the Governor was represented. But, I have an image of Speaker Howell and a few of his capos working from a political checklist and with a Greek chorus in the background chanting “no new taxes or fees, nevermore, nevermore!”
There are so many things wrong with this picture. After eight years of leadership by Governors with proven experience as managers and a vision for building a stronger, more productive and inclusive Virginia, the Commonwealth now has an operating plan assembled by a few lawyers to serve a political enterprise driven more by what government can’t, or won’t, do for its citizens than what it can do. A few examples of the fruits of the current team’s labors:
• Virginia is the 12th largest state, but is 45th in Medicaid spending. Income limits for Medicaid eligibility are $10K for a single person or $22K for a family of four. Over half a million Virginia children are on Medicaid. A Virginia Hospital Association survey found that 58% of Medicaid providers said they’d stop taking Medicaid patients if the state made further cuts. The current budget cuts Medicaid provider payments by 7%.
• The Budget reduces payments to the Virginia Public Employee Retirement System (VRS) by $464.9 million, based on changes to actuarial assumptions and cuts to benefits for future hires. These changes push current liabilities off on to future taxpayers (gimmickry) and reduce compensation to new teachers and public safety workers, among others;
• Increases class size and reduces standards of quality (SoQ) for K-12 public education and cuts $50 million from higher education;
• Creates a tax credit for motion picture and TV production in the Commonwealth and adds $48 million in new corporate tax breaks (Note: before you think job creation, the Hospital Association estimates that the Medicaid cuts will eliminate 6000 jobs); and,
• Stops filling vacant judge positions to save between $5 and $10 million. A Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge processes 1200 cases per year.
So, there you have it in a nutshell. Justice delayed, pension liabilities deferred; health care denied; government services weakened, with most of these service impacts affecting Virginia’s middle class and the poor residents. I remain optimistic, though. Many Democrats believe that future revenues have been systematically underestimated in order to justify service cuts and to create a low baseline for future claims of responsibility for a “turnaround.” I hope this comes to pass.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].