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Column: Spending Plan Approved

The General Assembly passed a spending plan for FY2012-2014 last week in a session that had much more drama than most meetings of the state’s legislature. One Democratic Senator changed his vote after the budget had failed to pass in order that the constitutionally required majority could be reached; a Republican Senator got a State Police escort back to the Capitol from visiting his wife in the hospital in order that he could vote. By a one vote margin the $85 billion spending plan for the next biennium was approved.

I refer to the bill that passed as a spending plan because it lacks essential features of a real budget. Every year the Governor and the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committee members get together and slice the pie of available state revenue. Just as at any party, there often is sharp disagreement as to the size of the slices and who should get what. Such a disagreement delayed approval of the plan for about a month. The good news with such a system is that the spending plan is balanced so long as the revenue estimates are accurate. The bad news is that needs often go unmet.

One of the areas of greatest need that continues to go unaddressed is in transportation. Although Governor McDonnell campaigned for his job on the basis of having a transportation plan, he has yet to show leadership in meeting the growing urgency of responding to the worst traffic congestion in the Nation that is in Northern Virginia. The most logical answer to automobile traffic congestion is to provide alternative means of commuting such as mass transit among others. While Governor McDonnell agreed to provide an additional $150 million of state funds for the Silver Line Metrorail project, the amount is a fraction of the monies being provided in Hampton Roads for projects there. No analysis is provided as to the relative need of the regions of the state in dividing up funds as budgeting system with minimal sophistication would require. While the Governor frequently reminded voters during his campaign that he was born in Northern Virginia, he has spent the last several decades in the Tidewater region. He is well aware of the transportation needs there from personal experience, but he does not seem to respond as strongly to the needs of Northern Virginia that are well documented.

Budget amendments sponsored in the House by me and Delegate Tom Rust and in the Senate by Senators Janet Howell and Mark Herrings to increase the amount of direct state support to the Silver Line were not supported by the Governor nor approved in the General Assembly. The budget impasse was related to getting the Senate amendment approved. While the approved spending plan did not include the additional monies, the Silver Line Phase 2 can move forward with its existing financial plan and have an increase in state monies for the project debated at future General Assembly sessions.

The needs of our region for additional transportation funding are but one example of an antiquated state budgeting system that leaves our region short of the state assistance it warrants. Just slicing up a shrinking pie is not adequate for our high growth region. We will limp along with another spending plan, but the Governor could create a real legacy for himself by providing real leadership for an objective based budget that would certainly include more monies for the Silver Line, our schools and social services.