- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

Aid to public education, which has been spared so far during Virginia's budget crunch, is a likely target next month when Gov. Mark R. Warner presents his budget to legislative leaders in Richmond.
Virginia faces a nearly $1 billion budget deficit. Mr. Warner has cut almost $5 billion from it since taking office in January without touching education funding considered by many voters a "sacred cow." However, he acknowledged that such a cut might be unavoidable.
Ellen Qualls, the governor's press secretary, has said Mr. Warner has not ruled out administrative cuts.
House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan agreed.
"We are going to have to look at the things that have not been touched, and basic aid to education includes one-third of the budget," said Mr. Callahan, Fairfax Republican.
Mr. Warner is expected to release the budget Dec. 20.
Virginia's education budget for fiscal year 2003, beginning July 1, is expected to reach $9.5 billion, about 20 percent of the commonwealth's total operating budget.
About half of the money goes directly to school localities to pay for basic operating costs and teacher salaries, known as Standards of Quality.
Political observers expect the expenses to remain intact, but say such programs as home-bound instruction and drop-out prevention might not.
"Programs that don't deal with the SOQs will likely be cut," said Speaker-designate William Howell, Stafford Republican.
Virginia's revenue has grown by 0.3 percent through the first four months of the fiscal year, compared with last fiscal year, but it has fallen behind the forecast growth of 0.8 percent, according to Secretary of Finance John M. Bennett's October report.
That has contributed to the $1 billion shortfall lawmakers must close.
"Economic indicators continue to depict a weak recovery in Virginia," Mr. Bennett said.
One promising indicator in the report was sales-tax revenues, which account for 22 percent of the general fund revenues and grew 6.4 percent from October 2001. The report stated it was not clear what effect the sniper attacks would have, but a decline in sales-tax revenue was anticipated in the coming months.
General fund revenues make up 49 percent of the state's revenue. The money comes from collecting personal and business taxes. The governor and the General Assembly have the greatest amount of flexibility on how to spend the money.
By the time the impending round of budget cuts is finished, the state will have sliced $5 billion from the budget it passed in April. In August, Mr. Warner, Democrat, cut $3.5 billion. Last month he announced another $858 million in cuts.
Most agencies except aid to public education, Medicaid and the state police had their budgets reduced by the across-the-board cuts.
The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state police, was slated to receive $2 billion a year as part of the April agreement. Like other state agencies, its budget was cut in October, but $224 million for fiscal year 2003 and $215 millionfor fiscal year 2004 appropriated for the Department of State Police was left untouched.
The Department of Motor Vehicles and higher education were hit hardest by the cuts last month. Twelve motor vehicle branches were closed while nearly $240 million was cut over two years from public colleges and universities.
Mr. Warner asked state agencies in September to present budget-reduction proposals with recommended cuts at 7, 11 and 15 percent.
In response, department managers presented more than 2,000 pages of documents to Mr. Warner, who used the information to make the cuts.
Lawmakers have yet to see the documents but hope Mr. Warner shares the information so they can see a more complete picture for the upcoming round.
"We are just waiting for the governor [to share that information,]" said Mr. Callahan. "All I do is ask him to keep me in the loop so I am not blindsided."


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