Virginia Governor Mark Warner announced $858 million in budget cuts, about half of what is needed to balance the state’s budget.
Making every effort to protect his “core priorities," Warner announced Tuesday night up to 15 percent cuts in many agencies. The only thing that was left completely untouched was K-12 education.
“Aside from the fact that this is one of the governor’s major priorities, the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee found us so lacking in funding the Standards of Quality that we can’t really afford any further cuts in this area or we risk being sued,” said Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45).
Higher education did not fare as well. George Mason University will be cut by $9 million in FY2003 and $12 million in FY2004. Northern Virginia Community College will also suffer some reduction in state funding.
“I am just so grateful to the governor for continuing to give people straight talk, particularly when the news is bad,” said Del. Kris Amundson (D-44). “Professional politicians sometimes want to avoid the discussion or sugarcoat it. What happened im the 1990's is that the legislature did two things at the same time — adding programs and offering tax cuts, including the elimination of the car tax. This could only be sustained as long as the economy was growing at double digit rates. Once the recession hit, the house of cards collapsed. That’s why in January, when he came into office, there was a $3.8 billion deficit to close. When everyone left Richmond, we felt like we had gotten through that. Things haven’t turned around and we are now looking at around a $2 billion before we are through.”
Amundson added, “There aren’t any easy choices left. All of those have been done. If you have kids in college, you are going to feel these cuts either through bigger classes or increases in tuitions. At the DMV, it is going to be closed one day a week.
“The governor did hold harmless direct aid to education. Fairfax County alone saw $26 million in cuts in direct aid in education,” she said.
Amundson took note of the fact that Gov. Warner could only cut, by law, 15 percent of any agency and that he has done that in a number of agencies across the board. "When we go back in January, we are going to have to continue to struggle. I do think we are going to get through this and hope that people understand the seriousness of where we are.
“Aid to libraries is particularly important in Fairfax County," said Amundson. "We have one of the highest rates of library use in the country and they are going to take a whack. The community service boards are going to take a whack. As much as possible, he [Gov. Warner] tried to protect Medicaid which, in Virginia, largely goes to elderly persons who require nursing home care.
“The General Assembly has proposed a number of cuts that will effect us — not filling vacancies, shortening the session, those kinds of things. It is important that people not get into pointing fingers and start to roll up your sleeves and do it."
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, Amundson said, "higher education will not absorb all of those cuts; they will raise tuition before that happens. The community colleges are less able to do that and that’s why their cuts were less.
“The localities can’t pick up everything that the state is not funding, as I see it. We are going to have to have a conversation about what kind of a Virginia we want to have. If advocates simply take the approach, 'don’t cut me,' then they are going to leave the field to other people to make those decisions. You need to look at key priorities and draw a circle around the most vulnerable people and work your way out.”
Amundson added, "We need to look at ways to generate revenue for public education and public safety. In Fairfax, the county government has so few arrows in its quiver that it ends up falling on the backs of homeowners."
"I think everyone is going to feel the pain from these cuts," said Del. Linda "Toddy" Puller (D-36). "Depending on your particular set of circumstances will depend on where you feel it most: those who need to use community service board programs will certainly notice cuts; those who have kids in college will notice higher tuitions and those who use DMV or the ABC stores will notice decreased hours. It is going to be a very tough year in Richmond."
“The governor tried very hard to protect the community college system and make larger cuts in the universities that could better afford them,” said Delegate Brian Moran (D-46). “The universities are going to have to decide what to do about these cuts. They will either reduce staff or raise tuition. At the community college level, we are going to see larger classes. There is certainly an understanding at the community college level that the tuition must remain affordable because of that particular student population.”
Locally, Gunston Hall will face 15 percent cuts in both FY2003 and 2004, amounting to nearly $175,000 over the next two years.
THE OTHER AREA that the governor “protected” was public safety. Here, cuts are being made in the compensation board’s funding. This means that localities will have to defray more of the costs of the commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices, sheriff’s offices and clerks of the courts. Public safety services will not be directly affected.
Social services are also facing cuts. “There are going to be pin pricks in the edges of the safety net,” Moran said. “The governor is protecting Medicaid at this point but the Community Service Boards are going to face cuts as are the mental health facilities around the state.”
The Department of Motor Vehicles is going to lose 500 staff statewide. Offices throughout the state will be closed one day a week and some offices will be closed entirely.
“My constituents are going to notice this particular cut perhaps the most,” Moran said. “It is DMV employees, after all, with whom most people come face to face most often. Lines are going to be longer and the frustration level of those that DMV serves is going to be higher.”
OVERALL, THE GOVERNOR projected that 1,837 state employees will lose their jobs as a result of these cuts. That does not include the up to 4,000 college and university employees who could lose their jobs.
“Tonight’s budget reductions are as severe as any in recent Virginia history,” said Sen. Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer (D-30). “This much we do know: services at agencies like DMV will be severely reduced. Higher education will be substantially reduced and many vulnerable citizens who depend on basic services will have to wait longer for these services.”
Ticer believes that the governor had very little choice. “With tonight’s actions, the governor has gotten the budget shortfall for the current fiscal year under control,” she said. “Unfortunately, there is more work ahead. The governor has been clear that when the General Assembly convenes next January they will have to make cuts beyond the maximum 15 percent that the governor is allowed to make under the law.
“When that process begins, Gov. Warner will adhere to the same bipartisan principles and approach that have been the hallmark of his administration. And the governor was right on target when he challenged all of us who may be critical of this or that part of his plan to offer constructive alternatives,” said Ticer.
Van Landingham agreed, saying, “The governor inherited an untenable situation. It’s glorious to be in the majority but with that also comes responsibility. If they don’t like the proposed cuts they should propose some way to increase revenue so that we can balance the budget. I haven’t heard that mentioned to this point,” she said.
All of the legislators warned that these cuts could impact local services significantly. “Most people don’t realize that more than half of the state’s entire budget goes to localities,” said Van Landingham. “Each cut, by itself, may not seem significant. Cumulatively, though, there could be a hefty price tag for the localities to pick up.”
THAT IMPACT WILL not be known until each department such as Human Services, the Health Department, juvenile justice programs and those agencies that are funded by the Compensation Board are able to assess the cuts.
“As the governor said in his speech, Virginia government, for too long, has promised services that it simply can’t afford,” Ticer said. “During the 1990's, Virginia increased state spending and commitments at the same time that we were rushing wholesale to reduce revenues. The house of cards collapsed in 2000 and 2001. When Mark Warner took office, the shortfall in Virginia’s budget was already a staggering $3.8 billion. He reached a bipartisan agreement with the leaders of the General Assembly on how to close that shortfall and he did it in his first month in office.
"Corporate scandals and the lingering effects of the recession have severely depressed tax revenues, and caused an additional shortfall of $1.5 billion, bringing the total shortfall that he has dealt with since January to $5.3 billion. The governor promptly identified the shortfall, reported it to the money committees of the General Assembly in August and set out to address the problem.”
Moran said that it was now up to the people. “The governor has done what he can,” he said. “Now, I am sure, as all Virginians feel these cuts, each legislator’s constituents will let him or her know how they feel.”
Warner must submit his budget to the General Assembly by Dec. 20, and more cuts are on the way.