The budget is out, but please don’t pout

Colin Hannifin

Columnist

From local town hall meetings to filibusters on the Senate floor, there is little question that politics can get rather confusing. When you add in budgeting, the glass gets even murkier. This is especially true for state budgets, which must balance each fiscal year—a requirement that does not apply to the federal government.

In this economy, Virginia has struggled to balance its budget. Virginia issues a biennial budget—that is, one budget to serve two fiscal years. For political purposes, the fiscal year runs from October 1 of the previous year to September 30 of the year in which it is numbered (for instance, fiscal year 2011 will run from October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011). The current budget in question is for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

Due to the figures for projected revenues, which predict a $4.2 billion shortfall over the next two fiscal years, Governor Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly have struggled to find a balance to the budget. Still, the General Assembly managed to pass a preliminary budget on March 14 – two Sundays ago – but the plan still relies on McDonnell’s approval before it is signed into law.

It has been far from easy to come up with this balance and this compromise still has many groups calling foul. McDonnell has faced pressure to deliver on campaign promises (such as reopening rest stops and not raising taxes), while necessarily needing to find $4.2 billion to move the legislative process forward. The shortfall is filled chiefly through reductions and cuts in spending.

One of the hardest-hit public sectors is education. The General Assembly approved budget calls for a $243.5 million reduction in spending for education. In addition to the vast reduction in funds educational institutions will see from the state, many federal stimulus funds for education have started to run dry, and individual schools are looking at budget struggles of their own.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around how much money this is, or just what this may mean for us. As VCU President Michael Rao himself told us in a school-wide e-mail, VCU will lose a total of $42.1 million in funding for fiscal year 2012. While that is still a year and a half off, it does have immediate ramifications. As in all things political and financial, budgeting takes considerable time and VCU does not have much of it to find a stop-gap $42.1 million dollars.

VCU’s first priority, by all accounts, is its students. Unfortunately, a budget shortfall of this magnitude is difficult to absorb and could be most damaging to us students in the ways of fees, tuition increases, program cuts, and larger class sizes. It virtually spells out another steep hike in tuition next year, as well as personnel cuts and more limited course offerings. When more and more people are coming back to school and the state is throwing up more educational obstacles, it seems that a degree will only get harder to come by.

There seems to be little that can be done. There have been protests and gatherings, but these haven’t been significant enough to persuade lawmakers, nor would I anticipate any future demonstrations that would be any more effective. After all, the bottom line speaks, and Virginia does have $4.2 billion dollars to find. Indeed, $243.5 million, while no paltry sum, accounts for less than 6 percent of the total cost reductions Virginia has had to account for.

There may, of course, be other fields that VCU could enter into in order to increase it’s revenue. Over the past few years, there has been a democratization of higher education, with institutions like the University of Phoenix offering full majors online. Could a program like this be on VCU’s road map, as online universities and courses are perceived to be more and more equivalent to brick-and-mortar institutions?

One thing that will not be slowed down by the proposed Virginia budget is VCU’s planned expansion. The budget document (available online at Virginia’s Department of Planning and Budget) includes $3 million for a new baseball facility, almost $41 million for new housing and a parking deck on West Grace Street, another $3 million to renovate MCV’s One Capitol Square, and just over $4 million to renovate the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

At a time like this, though many complain for the slowing trickle of funds from the state, there is little to do but tighten our belts and prepare for a few rough years ahead. McDonnell and the General Assembly faced little choice, and treated education as kindly as they could. The only other option to balance the budget was significant tax increases—an almost universally unpopular option. It appears our current President and The Congress have already started down that road, with the recent passage of legislation that could significantly increase federal taxes. Whether that is the best decision is another story.

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