- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Virginia lawmakers will consider cutting from such critical areas as education and health care when they convene Wednesday for the 2009 General Assembly session to deal with an estimated $3 billion budget deficit.

“I suppose that the budget always is either the predominant issue or near the top, but clearly it will be this year, given the economic struggles that we’re having,” said Delegate Ward L. Armstrong, House Minority Leader and Henry County Democrat. “Clearly that’s going to dominate.”

The House and the Senate are scheduled to convene at noon for a roughly six-week session amid a global recession and preparations for a gubernatorial election that is likely to draw national attention. Lawmakers already have prepared a flurry of bills and proposals for consideration.

Plans by Gov. Tim Kaine to plug the $3 billion hole in the state’s finances - a projected deficit some legislators say is less than the actual total - will form the framework for the budget debate, which will include previously untouched areas of state government.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, wants to close the shortfall with such measures as systemwide cuts, dipping into the state’s reserves, trimming the state’s inmate population and enacting a 30-cent increase in the state’s cigarette tax.

The governor said the tax increase would generate $148 million in revenue to help support state Medicaid costs. He also said changes in Medicaid services would save the state $418 million.

The governor in December also unveiled budget amendments he says would save the state roughly $430 million in direct aid to public education in fiscal 2010.

“You should cut for tomorrow by looking at the policies that are driving costs and by varying the cuts in different line items,” Mr. Kaine said of his budget proposals. “And that’s what we did.”

Some of Mr. Kaine’s proposals likely face their strongest opposition from the Republican-led House.

House Speaker William J. Howell, a Stafford Republican who has denounced the cigarette-tax increase as a “job killer,” said party colleagues in his chamber are often unjustifiably labeled as obstructionists.

However, he acknowledged some of Mr. Kaine’s plans won’t be “as warmly accepted as he might have anticipated.”

The governor also plans to push legislative and executive actions dealing with energy and the environment and is backing a ban on smoking in state bars and restaurants that previously died in Mr. Howell’s chamber.

“There’s a lot of the governor’s proposals I’m sure we won’t have a problem with,” Mr. Howell said. “If the governor’s got a good proposal, we’ll accept it. If we don’t think it’s in the best interest of the commonwealth, we’re not.

“It isn’t a personal thing, where we’re picking on the governor,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Howell said lawmakers were working on affordable health care legislation for small businesses and are bringing back another previously failed bill that would use income from the state’s ports to pay for transportation.

The speaker also said legislators were working on alternative-energy proposals, and that President-elect Barack Obama’s plan for a federal stimulus package could play a role in how lawmakers proceed.

“The part that is really unknown in all this … is the federal-stimulus stuff that’s going to be coming down,” Mr. Howell said.

Lawmakers already have submitted a wealth of bills as the session approaches, including proposals that would create an exception to the prohibition on wearing political buttons, stickers or apparel near polling places; allow no-excuse absentee voting; prohibit the use of wireless devices while driving on Virginia highways except in an emergency; and amend the constitution to permit a second term for the governor. Another bill expected to resurface places the car-tax reimbursement rate at 100 percent.

Mr. Armstrong said the partisanship that has characterized the Virginia legislative process poses another hurdle this year, considering the Democrats’ success in November’s elections and a high-profile governor’s race this year.

Three Democrats - state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, former state Delegate Brian J. Moran and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe - will be battling for support prior to the party’s June primary. Attorney General Bob McDonnell is the only Republican in the race.

Session participants also will be gearing up simultaneously for the lieutenant governor and attorney general races, while all 100 House of Delegates seats come up for re-election as well.

“I think the stage is set for there to be unfortunately another session full of partisanship,” Mr. Armstrong said. “I wish that weren’t the case.”

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II - Fairfax Republican and one of four candidates vying for the attorney general post, including Delegate Steve Shannon, Fairfax Democrat - predicted an “ugly” and “somewhat bloody” legislative session.

He said voters’ job security and the struggling economy will drive lawmakers’ concerns, while the upcoming gubernatorial election is likely to pose an obstacle to any sort of solution for the state’s transportation crisis.

“What it will do more than anything, not to anybody’s joy, is it will make it less likely for [a transportation plan] of substance to come up and get through,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.

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