As I sit here on a Sunday night watching the historic vote on healthcare reform legislation unfold before my eyes, it is hard to remember that it was just one week ago that the Virginia General Assembly passed a budget and adjourned for this session. Our efforts in the Assembly this year pale in comparison to the courageous stands that many are taking in Washington to pass a bill that has eluded this country for at least sixty years. Many will remember where they were on this historic occasion.
The budget passed by the General Assembly was far better than the one that emerged from the House of Delegates on February 25, 2010. The House budget would have decimated K-12 education, with cuts of more than $700 million over and above the cuts proposed by Governor Kaine in his introduced budget. The House budget, which included the so-called “Bell Amendment” which would have transferred $5.6 million in City school funding directly to Albemarle County schools, was a disaster for both Charlottesville and Albemarle. Charlottesville school funding would have been slashed by 35 percent and Albemarle’s by almost 15 percent. In addition, the House budget made substantial cuts in Medicaid, social services funding, and funding for the arts.
Fortunately, in the weeks following the House budget, legislators heard loudly and clearly from their constituents, and the Senate of Virginia held firm against the extensive cuts proposed by the House. In the end, the new budget still includes cuts to K-12 education (about $250 million over and above Governor Kaine’s proposal), but many other items were restored and school divisions such as Charlottesville and Albemarle both benefited greatly. While neither the House nor the Senate was willing to raise taxes, they included some fees in the budget, most notably in the area of recording costs on deeds and in court processing fees.
The budget was balanced primarily because of two factors. First, despite House Republicans’ stated unwillingness to accept federal monies, there were projected federal funds included in the budget that lessened the cuts in the Medicaid budget. In addition, some $620 million was “borrowed” from the state Retirement System, conditional upon repayment over ten years at 7.5 percent interest per year beginning in 2013. This was very troubling because I believe our retirement system needs to be strong so that state employees who come to rely on it will receive the benefits to which they are entitled upon their retirement. Beyond this, this borrowing imposes an additional obligation on the General Fund that will need to be repaid at some point in time. If the economy does not significantly improve, the only choice may be to go further into K-12 for cuts to fund the repayment.
If one looks further out than this year, the Commonwealth has some very serious issues that it is failing to address. Our tax system is antiquated and far too regressive. If we were to impose a surcharge on the highest incomes in Virginia, it would raise monies that could fill gaps in critical core services that our constituents consider important. In addition, our Transportation Trust Fund will no longer be able to access federal dollars without additional state monies being raised. To think we are going to solve these problems by selling off our liquor stores or by royalties from drilling for oil and gas off our coast is fanciful; even if these efforts were to bring some additional revenue, it is not likely to be enough to address our critical problems.
I will continue to fight to adequately fund our infrastructure and the core services that our citizens consider important, and will need your help in the months and years ahead to do so.
I am now back in Charlottesville, and encourage you to engage in what will be a priority of mine in the next several months, that is, attempting to facilitate a discussion between Charlottesville and Albemarle to develop a process by which they can work more closely together, thereby saving money and providing a higher level of service to our citizens. I have convened a meeting on April 24, 2010, with the School Boards and both elected bodies, and have begun a blog that will explore City/County cooperation. I hope you will participate in the discussion and offer your suggestions on how we might move forward.
I am available to speak to groups who may wish to get an update on the General Assembly session and to talk with constituents about ideas they have for future legislation or priorities that we need to be embracing.
It is an honor representing you in the Virginia House of Delegates.
As always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts and concerns about legislative matters. Please call the Charlottesville office at (434) 220-1660, send emails to email@example.com, or send letters to David Toscano, 211 E. High St, Charlottesville, VA 22902.