Area Lawmakers See Tough Sledding Ahead in Richmond
Area lawmakers made their first trip to Richmond this Monday in anticipation of the upcoming state legislative session set to begin on Jan. 11. The occasion was the presentation by Gov. Bob McDonnell of the first state budget he’s crafted on his own.
Predictably, the McDonnell proposal is predicated on no tax rate increases, and even with projections of modest revenue growth through economic expansion, serious cuts in the governor’s plan threaten K-12 education, Medicaid and more, according to Falls Church outgoing State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple and Del. Jim Scott.
Both were among the 40 or so members of the House and Senate “money committees” who assembled Monday to hear Gov. McDonnell lay out his plan.
While the governor’s budget adds money back to the ailing Virginia Retirement Fund (VRS), it is not enough to avoid the need for hefty hikes in contributions from localities in the coming year, Sen. Whipple told the News-Press.
Del. Scott expressed concern for the health of pension programs all over the U.S., including in Fairfax County. He cited a study reported at the National Conference of State Legislators in Tampa that found Fairfax County to be underfunded in its pension programs by $30,000 per household.
“That’s an awful lot,” Scott told the News-Press this week, “Even if it is half the unfunded liabilities in places like Chicago.”
The McDonnell’s budget plan for education robs Peter to pay Paul, in the proverbial sense. It reduces funding for public education by $363 million – including removing $81 million for preschool programs – and uses it to replenish the VRS while adding back only $100 million. The net is a cut of $263 million for support of the public school system.
Cuts to Medicaid total $416 million, most by not providing hospitals and nursing facilities with any adjustments for inflation.
Del. Scott told the News-Press he’ll be sworn into a new term in Richmond with the fewest Democratic colleagues in the House of Delegates since he first took office in 1992. The number will be only 32, fewer than the last low-water mark of 34 in 2002. The Democrats’ number grew to 45 a few years ago, before falling back precipitously recently.
Combined with a new Republican control of the State Senate, a 20-20 tie with a Republican lieutenant governor’s tie-breaking vote, both Scott and Whipple predicted there will be a tsunami of socially-regressive bills that will make it to the governor’s pen this session.
In recent years, Democratic control of the Senate was effective to block many arch-conservative bills that were passed in the GOP-controlled House. That “protection” will no longer be there when the new legislature convenes.
In areas of abortion, equal rights and immigration, it can be expected that setbacks will occur, Scott noted, although he didn’t think the state would revert to the kinds of egregious policies on immigration of places like Arizona.
The last session, the State Senate called for a court decision to help provide guidelines for what will be Constitutional or un-Constitutional on immigration matters, he said.
“I think that means saner heads will prevail” when it comes to some of the most strident anti-immigration legislation,” he said.
For Whipple, Monday’s marked her last trip to Richmond as a sitting state senator. The chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus for 12 of her 16 years in the senate, she will return to Richmond on Jan. 11 for the swearing in of her successor, State Sen.-elect Barbara Favola. Whipple’s final regular column in the News-Press appears elsewhere in this addition.
Meanwhile, through redistricting, the City of Falls Church will become represented by State Sen. Dick Saslaw for the first time during the coming session.