The Virginia General Assembly finally adjourned last Friday after reaching a compromise on the formula for distributing new state revenue.
"It really disturbs me that not one member of the House conference committee voted for the revenue package but got to decide how to spend it," said Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-45). "Not only did they get to decide how to spend the money but some of them received special benefits from the revenue package they fought so hard to defeat. The majority leader, for example, got money for a museum in Roanoke. It's just really annoying."
The revenue package included a half-cent increase in the state's sales tax. Half of that money will go to the general fund and the other half will come to localities to support K-12 education and real estate tax relief.
"The formula for distributing those funds is the best we could do for Northern Virginia," said Delegate Brian Moran (D-46). "We have accomplished some good things for education. Transportation wasn't dealt with at all but fixing that will take far more money than is available here."
The quarter cent sales tax increase that will fund local schools adds $377 million over the amount recommended in the budget to meet the state's share of funding public education. One half of this amount will be distributed based on the composite index to fund the state's standards of quality. The other portion of this money will be distributed on the basis of school-age population.
"This is good for Alexandria because we have a significant number of school-age kids who are in private school," Moran said.
Senator Linda "Toddy" Puller (D-36) said she thinks that the conference budget is "quite good, it goes along with the Senate's position more than the House's. I just can't believe we had to fight as long as we did for half a cent."
Puller will speak at the Prince William Chamber of Commerce this evening [Thursday] to give them a wrap-up on the budget.
Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44) said, "It's not a perfect budget, but it does a lot of things people thought it needed to do. It protects our Triple A Bond rating and keeps us financially stable. It also makes a substantial investment toward the core services-particularly in education and human services."
Amundson said that she believes that Fairfax County Public Schools will receive $130 million in new money over the next biennium. She also said that the increases in human services funding will be significant as well, particularly in the area of Medicare and Medicaid waivers.
"It will improve the state's ability to fund services," said Amundson. "Anything we do for the most vulnerable is important."
Both Puller and Amundson agree that the lack of new money for transportation is a problem.
"I hope it's handled next year," said Puller.
Senator Patricia S. "Patsy" Ticer (D-30) agreed with Moran's assessment of the budget compromise. "This was the best possible compromise that we were going to get," she said. "We have added significant money to K-12 education and that is very good. Also, we were able to add some funds to mental health and to services to four-year-olds, which is something I have supported for some time."
WHILE MOST OF the additional revenues will support K-12 education, there is some additional funding for higher education. "We were able to put some money back into operations for our schools," Van Landingham said. "George Mason University and Christopher Newport, for example, will benefit greatly. However, we did not put the necessary funding into maintenance of our university facilities because we decided not to borrow money to do that. That is something we will have to address later."
The vote on the distribution of the additional revenue was by no means certain. "We really didn't know whether the compromise was going to pass until the floor vote," Van Landingham said. "We got the support of 17 Republicans and it will be interesting to see what kind of longterm ramifications that has in terms of the way the House Republicans deal with each other."
Dan Storck, Fairfax County School Board Representative from Mount Vernon, said, "I'm pleased that the state passed the budget. It will be of help to the county and adding money will close the funding gap."
Storck did go on to say that this new budget still doesn't address the core problem of Fairfax money not coming back to Fairfax. He and others believe that the funding formula is not fair to Fairfax County. Amundson said that her legislation on this point has been carried over and will hopefully be looked at by the House Education Committee during the off-session.
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY will return to Richmond for a one-day session on June 16 to deal with any adjustments that Governor Mark Warner makes to the budget. Based on his comments, members of the House and Senate do not expect any substantive changes.
"We have adopted a budget that breaks with recent history by making historic new investments in public education and human services for our most vulnerable citizens," said Governor Mark Warner. "We have invested as well in our vital public safety assets. And we have protected Virginia's hard-earned reputation for a fiscally conservative governance.
"In the two years since I took office, Virginia has faced $6 billion in budget shortfalls. We closed those shortfalls by shrinking the size of government, and by insisting on reforms that increase efficiency. Today's action does not change in any way our continuing determination to reform government and to make it more efficient. The investments made today will protect Virginia's most basic assets for years to come, and we must remain responsible stewards," he said.