- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

RICHMOND — The state’s revenue surplus will be more than $260 million greater than Gov. Mark Warner estimated in his proposed budget a little more than a month ago, the governor told legislative leaders yesterday.

On top of the $919 million Mr. Warner estimated in December, the additional revenue would drive the surplus for the current budget cycle to about $1.2 billion.

That creates a windfall the General Assembly — with fall elections pending for all 100 House seats — is scrambling to pour into new and existing programs, including finishing the car-tax phaseout and guaranteeing $50 million a year for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

In a memo sent yesterday to the heads of the legislature’s top House and Senate money committees, Mr. Warner narrowed his revenue forecast to $265 million above December’s projection.

The news was no surprise to House and Senate leaders who met privately with Mr. Warner, a Democrat, yesterday morning. House Speaker William J. Howell and other House Republican leaders have predicted for months that the final surplus would easily top $1 billion.

“The revenues primarily reflect year-to-date collections,” said House Appropriations Committee staff director Robert Vaughn, who joined the lawmakers in meeting with Mr. Warner.

Anticipating a run on the surplus, Mr. Warner cautioned during a press conference that despite enormous windfalls, the state has additional costs for existing mandated and high-priority programs in the 2006-2008 budget.

Among those items is $1.2 billion for public education when the state’s Standards of Quality are updated to reflect minimum school requirements; more than $700 million for keeping pace with state-subsidized health care programs, primarily Medicaid; $450 million in higher car-tax reimbursement costs; and $150 million for two new prisons coming into operation.

“These are $2.9 billion in additional spending problems that no one would ever conclude are anything but mandatory,” Mr. Warner said after crowing over a new study by the independent Government Performance Project in which Virginia received the highest grade — the only state to score all A grades on its fiscal management.

“Wouldn’t it be ironic if after Virginia gets all A’s if we went back onto the path of fiscal irresponsibility?” Mr. Warner said.

The revenue figure comes as the Appropriations Committee and the Finance Committee face a Sunday deadline for finalizing their work on their respective budget proposals.

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