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Virginia governor seeks deep cuts to schools, social services

February 17th, 2010 12:00 am by Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed deep, unprecedented cuts to public schools, the state government work force and health and welfare safety net programs in a $2.1 billion bid to balance a critically troubled state budget.

The Republican governor, who ruled out any tax boosts before he took office a month ago, sent shock waves across a General Assembly struggling with its own budget plans and through teachers, state workers.

The cuts include rolling back the base state support for local public schools to 2008 levels, using buses longer and not funding sports coaches in education.

Other cuts include five unpaid days off annually for state workers, closing five state parks and slashing a programs that aid the homeless and prevent teen pregnancies.

"All the cuts gave me heartburn. All of them were difficult because I know that behind every cut there is a Virginian - somebody in this room or somebody out of the 7.8 million people we have - that might be affected by that," McDonnell said after outlining his cuts at a news conference.

After weeks of private talks with senior legislators and the staffs of the House and Senate budget-writing committees, McDonnell detailed what he has recommended to them for reconciling a $4 billion shortfall in revenue the state projects through 2012.

The General Fund budget for fiscal 2010 is about $14 billion. House and Senate money committees report their new budgets for fiscal 2011 and 2012 on Sunday.

As Virginia continues to struggle with an economic downturn that will cost state government an estimated $11 billion from mid-2007 through 2012, however, McDonnell said he will increase the state's official forecast of anticipated revenue by $200 million over the next two fiscal years. Finance Secretary said the projection was based on marginal recent improvement in collections of the state corporation tax and the levy paid to record real estate deeds, wills, lawsuits and contracts.

The modified forecast was based on Taxation Department data. Two economics advisory boards that consult governors on some revenue forecast adjustments, however, did not meet with McDonnell before Wednesday's announcement.

From education, McDonnell recommends $731 million in cuts over the next 2 1/2 years. Public employee compensation, retirement and benefits account for $966 million in reductions and savings. And Health and Human Resources programs face $345 million in combined cuts far deeper than reductions in the budget Democratic former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine submitted in December, four weeks before ceding the office to McDonnell.

For schools, the reductions come after deep cuts that Kaine had already mandated, largely to non-teaching support staff, in two years of budget cuts that totaled $7 billion.

"In the last biennium, we lost 4,350 teachers," an angry Robley S. Jones, chief lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association, said after McDonnell's comments.

"They're throwing the children of Virginia's poorest localities under the bus," Jones said. "What does Lee County do? Lee County is 80 percent dependent on state funds? The Virginia disparity is already one of the worst in the nation."

The biggest bite to schools, $226 million, comes from returning the spending base to 2008 levels. The state would save $130 million from eliminating supplements for salaries of coaches and department chairs. School buses would remain in service for 15 years instead of 12, a $19.5 million savings. School breakfasts would disappear.

McDonnell said five furlough days for state employees in each of the next two years would be offset by a 3 percent bonus for Christmas 2011. The state will continue to make retirement contributions for existing employees' contributions, he said, but the state will reap substantial savings by requiring that new state hires contribute one-fifth to their state retirement plans.

Some of McDonnell's cuts risk leaving the social safety net threadbare for those most at risk. He suggests eliminating $1.2 million in state aid for programs supporting the homeless, cutting $2.4 million in support for local dental programs that serve about 24,000 low-income people, and nearly $1 million from a program to prevent teen pregnancies.

McDonnell said he hoped business, charities and nonprofit organizations would fill the gap in government spending.

"We will ask the private sector to step up. I spent a lot of time ... throughout my career asking food banks, the Salvation Army, prison ministries and others during these tough times in Virginia to take that extra step," McDonnell said.

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