Newspaper headlines last week declared “State posts surplus of more than $500 million.” Such headlines about a “surplus” in Virginia’s budget appear with some regularity. I checked the meaning of “surplus” the old-fashioned way — in Webster’s Dictionary: “an amount or quantity in excess of what is needed.”
Hardly is the term surplus applicable to Virginia’s current situation. More accurately the excess cash the state had on the day it finalized its books should be termed an unappropriated balance or an amount of revenues received beyond the forecasted amount.
Why is the distinction I am making important? To suggest that the state has a surplus of money over what it needs is to totally discount unmet needs in the state that do not even make their way into budget consideration. It would be nice to have more money than needed allowing all taxpayers to get a refund. It is also important that the state not have to go into debt to meet current obligations. A full assessment of the cost of government if the state met its clear obligations has never been made to my knowledge. Such an assessment would allow for an honest discussion of whether the state has a temporary receipt of cash beyond what it expected or has a surplus of cash beyond what it needs. I have ranted in this space before about my concern with the misleading way the state handles its budgeting.
I believe one example will make my point that there is no reasonable way the state could be considered to have a surplus when there are such outstanding unmet needs in the areas for which the state has a responsibility—that example is funding for public schools. On the same day that the half billion dollar “surplus” was announced, The Commonwealth Institute issued a report, “State K-12 Funding in Virginia: Incremental Progress and Opportunities for Long-Term Solutions,” that found that if public schools were funded today at the same level they were in 2009 an additional three-quarter billion dollars would have been provided—all the surplus and about half that amount more.
Instead, school staffing in Virginia has declined by 1,242 positions while enrollment has increased by more than 50,000 students since 2009. A promise by the state to fund fifty-five percent of the cost of public schools with localities picking up the remaining forty-five percent has been flipped with localities having to pick up a much greater amount since the recession. Virginia ranks forty among the fifty states in the state funding it provides for public schools.
This example focuses on the inadequacy of the level of public school funding, but other examples could be given in the areas of mental health services and public health and safety. The conservative approach of forecasting revenue and the tight limitation on spending will keep Virginia with a more than balanced budget. If realistic state responsibilities were factored in, we could have a realistic balanced budget. Instead, we have underfunded programs and services with persons scratching their heads wondering how we could have a surplus with so much more left to do.