For the first time in 12 years, Virginia Del. Vince Callahan (R-34th), the ranking Republican member of the House of Delegates and chairman of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, is unopposed for re-election to his 19th term.
And that’s fortuitous for Callahan, who’s winding up 18 two-year terms this year. [Because Callahan served two one-year terms during redistricting in 1981-82, Callahan actually has served 19 terms in 36 years.]
Not only does it mean that “I can pretty much say what I want to say,” Callahan told members of the McLean Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons last week, but it also freed him up to care for his wife, Dot, who had open heart surgery complicated by pulmonary problems after she was stricken in a McLean restaurant on April 4 of this year.
Since then, Dot Callahan has spent three months in three different hospitals, half of that time in intensive care, her husband said.
The resulting hospital bill, estimated by Callahan at $750,000, gave him a chance to reflect on health care and its costs, particularly in the event of a “catastrophic” illness, he told the AARP. “It gives you personal insight to the cost of medical care.
“I understood it in Richmond. But when it impacts you personally, you get a whole different perspective.
“When I was [first] elected, Medicaid did not exist,” Callahan said. But now, “The cost of indigent health care [at Medical College of Virginia in Richmond and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville] is about $400 to $500 million a year,” he said.
Dot Callahan’s bills will be paid by Medicare, with backup from a Kaiser Permanente policy, because she is a former Kaiser employee.
“But, say we were paupers,” Callahan said. “[The hospitals] would have eaten the cost because they are a nonprofit hospital. But the quality of care would not be the level she got.”
Medicaid, a federally mandated program, eats into Virginia’s general fund budget to the tune of $1.7 billion a year, Callahan said. That is the fund that taxpayers support.
CALLAHAN ROSE TO CHAIR of the powerful House of Delegates Appropriations Committee in 2002, after Republicans won a majority in the General Assembly for the first time in history.
He was co-chair for four years prior, when the chairmanship was shared with the Democrats.
Only former Democrat Lacey Putney of Bedford, now an Independent, has been there longer: 42 years, Callahan said.
This should have been flush times for the Republicans, but the party’s rise to power was accompanied by sinking revenues.
“We are not in good economic times in Virginia,” Callahan said in Great Falls. Although the economy is strengthening, he said, “it is going to take a while to recover from what has happened.
“We will have modest growth of 5 percent a year in income, but the needs exceed that by double.”
The younger and older populations in the state are growing, increasing the demand for funding for Medicaid at the upper end, since people are getting older and living longer.
At the lower end, Callahan said, there’s an age “bubble” within the school-age population. The state will have 60,000 more college-age students by 2010, he said.
Callahan says Virginia has “a structural imbalance” in its funding.
“Our Constitution says we have to have high-quality education for all Virginians. What that means is the state Board of Education promulgates certain basic educational standards — the Standards of Quality.
“The state is required to fund a certain percentage — it keeps changing — and the rest is picked up by localities. What percentage they fund is something the legislature defines — the Local Composite Index (LCI),” he said.
“[Funding for grades] K-12 takes one-third of our general fund money right off the bat.
“Medicaid is 12 to 13 percent of the budget. The car tax — a budget line item appropriation that covers reimbursement to localities — is increasing yearly because people are buying more cars, and more expensive cars.,” Callahan said. It commands about seven percent of the state’s budget.
FACING SUCH CHALLENGES, the state will embark on its every-other-year budgeting process on Dec. 17, when Gov. Mark Warner (D) introduces his budget proposal to lawmakers.
“It will have my name on it,” Callahan said.
“We have obligations right now, unless we make drastic changes in our own guidelines,” Callahan said.
Beginning on Jan. 14, when the legislature convenes, the body will have 60 days to appropriate about $52 billion for the two-year budget cycle that begins on July 1, 2004.
Warner predicts the present fiscal year has built into it a revenue increase of 4.6 percent. “We have to attain that growth to balance the current budget,” said Callahan.
In the new fiscal year, however, revenues of about 5 percent more will be needed.
“IN ORDER TO MEET our obligations, we need a 10-percent increase [over two years], which is not going to happen,” Callahan said.
“We are going to have to make some rather Draconian cuts in the quality of existing services unless we find new revenue sources.”
Raising the cigarette tax from the present 2.5 cents to 30 cents a pack might bring in about $150 million. That’s not enough to fix the shortfall, Callahan said.
In McLean, Callahan took a hostile question from Dranesville Democratic Party chair Dale Evans: “Are our schools underfunded?”
“Yes. We are a donor state,” said Callahan.
The LCI, the funding formula used by the state, prevents Northern Virginia from getting funds that are proportionate to the amount of revenue it generates.
It’s a philosophy built on the idea that “you have to have more or less equal educational opportunities around the state,” Callahan explained.
“Seventy percent of the legislators are the recipients of this largesse,” Callahan said. “We are part of the 30 percent [which gives more money for education than it gets back].
At an Oct. 14 candidates forum held by the Great Falls Citizens Association, Callahan remembered his early visits to the community.
“I’ve been coming out here since the mid-1960s,” he said.
The issue of the day in Great Falls then was the preservation of Georgetown Pike as a historic and scenic byway, Callahan said.
“I have very much been involved with its preservation as a historic byway. We worked to get money for traffic calming. I am responsible for that.”
Now, the traffic issue in Great Falls is whether a “techway” from Maryland will destroy neighborhoods.
Not on his watch, Callahan said.
“There is never going to be a techway coming through here,” he said. “It was never going to be built. I don’t think it is going to be built anyplace.”
Callahan said residents of Montgomery and Loudoun counties, like the residents of Great Falls and Fairfax County, don’t want a techway routed through their communities, either.