'Uncharted Waters' Affects Local Budgets

'Uncharted Waters' Affects Local Budgets

Plum, Howell describe implications of state budget impasse.

Reston’s two representatives to the General Assembly said Saturday there is little indication the stalled budget negotiations in Richmond will be resolved anytime soon. If the deadlock persists, they warned, Virginia’s government may be forced to shut down.

Unlike the federal government, Virginia has no provision allowing the previous year’s budget to carry over in the case of a budgetary impasse.

“We’re in totally uncharted waters here,” said Del. Ken Plum (D-Reston). “We’ve never gone this far without a budget.”

The House of Delegates and the Senate, both with competing budget plans, are refusing to budge any further, said Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston)

“At the moment, both sides are dug in pretty deep,” she said.

UNLESS A COMPROMISE is reached by June 30, every state agency dependent on government funding would close its doors, everything from state police to the Department of Education. Also, local governments would be hamstrung by the lack of money transferred from the state.

Dire scenarios aside, Plum and Howell spent a few hours Saturday explaining how the General Assembly found itself in this mess to a room at Reston Regional Library packed with concerned citizens.

The troubles started last fall, when Gov. Mark Warner (D) proposed a biennial budget that included measures to raise $1 billion in new money to address the rising costs of government and the increase in demand for services.

These risings costs are primarily because of the removal of the car tax, implementation of the costly Standards of Learning program, and elimination of parole, which keeps inmates imprisoned longer, Howell said.

A major initiative in Warner’s plan was to update Virginia’s tax code, which has not been updated since 1926.

“I know we take a long time to do things in Virginia, but that seems a little slow to me,” Plum said.

THE SENATE, HOWEVER, felt that Warner’s plan did not go far enough to fund the increased needs of public schools, higher education, health care, and public safety. So the Senate produced a new budget proposal that would raise state cigarette and sales taxes. Overall, the original Senate plan would have raised $2.2 billion in new money by raising selected taxes and lowering others.

The House, however, opted instead to forgo the tax increases and produced a plan that would eliminate selected corporate tax breaks. This budget plan would raise about $525 million in new funds, according to House Republican leaders.

As the two chambers worked out their differences, the Senate plan was slashed in half to make it more appealing to the House, Howell said. Among the measures cut from the Senate budget was funding for transportation improvements.

So far at least, the differences between the House and Senate appear close to irreconcilable. The impasse is, surprisingly, not between Republicans and Democrats. Because both sides of the General Assembly are controlled by Republicans, the impasse is the culmination of an internecine struggle within the GOP over taxes.

Democrats like Howell and Plum, they said, have little to do but watch from the sidelines as the anti-tax wing and moderate Republicans hammer out the differences between the two budget proposals.

THE MAJORITY of citizens attending the meeting Saturday afternoon said they would welcome higher taxes if it would mean the state would more adequately fund public education and human services, particularly for mentally handicapped and mentally retarded Virginians.

One mother who spoke at the meeting told Plum and Howell that her three autistic children have been on waiting lists for assistance for more than a year. She urged Reston’s representatives to the General Assembly to keeping fighting for the money needed to fund the services her children require.

“We ought to be ashamed of ourselves to do what we do the most vulnerable among us,” Plum said.

Reston founder Robert E. Simon, Jr., who also attended the meeting, said he is disappointed that Virginia ranks last among the 50 states in how much it funds mental health services and ranks 38th in how much it funds public education.

“Ask yourself whether you want to compare Virginia with all the other states,” he said.

Despite the high level of support among Reston residents for higher taxes and adequate government services, a few Fairfax County residents at the meeting said they do not support paying higher taxes, and that they hope the House budget plan prevails.

“You’re going to tax every element of society here in Fairfax County,” said Charles McAndrews. “The tax increase is an attack on the middle class.”