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Reading Budget's Fine Print

In previous columns I detailed my concerns with the state budget that led to my voting against its final passage. The final conference report on the budget was three days late in being agreed to which left the members of the House and Senate less than five hours to review the fine print of the report. It contains some interesting provisions.

Virginia’s current budget crisis came about in part because of a practice in the last administration to overestimate revenues as a way to deliver on political promises such as the car tax. Gov. [Mark] Warner has taken a much more cautious approach, and in this period of great economic uncertainty has been conservative in estimating future revenue. The House budget writers with agreement of the budget conferees revised upward the Governor’s estimates of revenues from public utilities, insurance premiums and real estate recordation taxes in order to fund some of their budget initiatives. If the revenue is not realized, the Governor is left with the bad guy job of cutting expenditures once again.

The conferees cut the entire $3.6 million proposed in the House budget to go to nonstate agencies. But there was no effort to distinguish among the various programs. The Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts Program that provided disadvantaged children throughout the state with academic instruction through the arts lost its $275,000 appropriation. It was given no more consideration than a $50,000 Labor Day festival in Virginia Beach and assistance to numerous small museums that were cut.

But not all nonstate agencies lost their funding. The $1.2 million provided to the Virginia Horse Center and opposed by many legislators almost deadlocked the conference committee. While most General Assembly members left town believing that the amount had been reduced to $850,000, the fine print reveals that the amount was actually increased to $2.1 million to be paid over four years.

Appearing in the conference report, after not having been included in the budget of either house, was language authorizing the Governor to develop a financing plan for a baseball stadium if a franchise is awarded to Virginia. It would be financed in part from sales tax revenue generated at the stadium.

The cruelest hoax in the entire budget is the supposed 2.25 percent pay raise for state employees and school teachers. State employees have not gotten a raise in three years, nor has the state assisted localities with teacher raises for three years. The fine print of the raise is that it would not take place until the middle of next year making the raise just over one percent for that year and nothing for this year. Furthermore, if revenue projections are not realized, the raises will not take place. Once again, the Legislature makes a questionable promise, and the Governor is left to be the bad guy to deal with the realities.

Once again the devil is in the details leaving me even more convinced that I was right in joining with 28 other delegates in voting against the budget.