Budget cuts education, health care, public safety

Marcos Chappell and Rebecca León

Contributing Writers

After much deliberation, the General Assembly has passed a two-year $82 billion budget that cuts spending on education, health care and public safety to bridge a $4 billion shortfall.

“Many previous unimaginable cuts would be necessary to produce a balanced budget,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington, who chairs the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus.

The Senate passed the budget 34-6, while the House passed it 73-23. Mediators worked through the night on Saturday, March 13 to reach compromises for votes on Sunday, March 14. The assembly extended its session by one day to wrap up the 2010-2012 budget.

The final budget makes a $253 million cut in K-12 education over the next two years–but it rejects $400 million in additional cuts originally desired by the House of Delegates. Advocates for teachers and other school staff say the cuts will result in the loss of thousands of jobs.

Project Discovery, a dropout prevention program, public broadcasting grants and Project Graduation from Central to Direct Aid all will receive less money, collectively saving the commonwealth about $1 million.

The budget also made reductions to health and human resources by $360 million, but legislators hope federal stimulus money will offset those cuts.

In the same way, the budget cuts funding for free clinics and community health centers and reduces Medicaid reimbursement to hospitals, nursing homes and health care professionals by 7 percent–unless federal monies are available. State officials also are banking on federal funds to provide Medicaid waivers for 250 more intellectually disabled children so they can receive services at home.

However, the state budget cuts could have been worse. The spending plan approved by legislators restores $13.7 million in operating funds for the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents and the Virginia Health Care Foundation. The budget also incorporates the Senate’s plan to provide $130 million for the program called Family Access to Medical Insurance Security, or FAMIS, which serves low-income children and pregnant women.

Besides health and education, government workers will feel the effects of the budget. The budget provides no pay raises for state workers, who have not seen raises in four years. However, if state revenues are adequate, the budget will provide a 3 percent bonus to certain employees in 2011.

However, legislators softened the blow to public safety. Despite some cutbacks, police departments will receive $10.3 million in additional funding during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The budget would restore funding for career development programs for sheriffs and regional jails.

Lawmakers approved $3.6 million to protect children from online predators. Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, created the Internet Crimes Against Children Fund, which will support law enforcement task forces through a $10 fee on all misdemeanor and felony convictions.

In crafting the budget, legislators faced one of the toughest economic slumps the commonwealth has ever seen. Because of the recession, tax revenues have been far below projections.

“At no time in my 49 years as a member of the House have I seen a budget situation this bad,” stated a Feb. 25 press release by Delegate Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the conference committee that worked with senators on the final budget.

“Despite the fiscal challenges we faced, the House and Senate conferees started the conference committee with a shared commitment to approving a state budget that does not contain a tax increase. Clearly, a $2 billion tax increase would have hampered our economic recovery, exacerbating the burden on Virginia’s taxpayers, working families and small businesses.”

The final budget included fewer fee increases than the Senate proposed but fewer spending cuts than the House wanted.

“This budget process was about minimizing the damage, and I think we have found the best way forward. We successfully reduced the devastating education cuts proposed by the House, found ways to keep cops on the street and will preserve the health-care safety net for vulnerable Virginians,” Whipple said.

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