December 19, 2008 — The state budget dominated the discussion at the University of Virginia's annual legislative forum, held Friday in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine this week proposed a $36.9 billion budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year that contains nearly $3 billion in spending reductions to accommodate a shortfall in state revenues. The proposal includes about $23 million in cuts in the state's appropriation to U.Va.
The members of the General Assembly will convene in January to debate the governor's proposal.
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard W. Sandridge joined four area legislators — Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath; Sen. Emmett W. Hanger, Jr., R-Augusta; Delegate Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, and Delegate David Toscano, D-Charlottesville — onstage to discuss the upcoming session, which opens Jan. 14.
Bell, a U.Va. graduate, cited some of his work on mental health laws following the Virginia Tech shooting, but he soon talked about the budget, stating this year's revenue projections were "too optimistic."
"Everything is on the table," he said of the upcoming budget negotiations.
Deeds, who is running for governor, noted that though the national and statewide financial situation is difficult, Virginia has maintained its AAA bond rating.
"It is time to put aside party and work hand-in-hand as Virginians," Deeds said. "We need to balance the budget and spread the pain."
Hanger reminded the crowd of approximately 125 that they live in "the best-managed state in the country" and he praised University leaders for their foresight, saying that they would be working with the legislators to solve current problems.
Hanger said some potential criminal justice reforms, such as the institution of drug courts and diversion programs, might be ways to reduce the prison population and therefore the corrections budget.
Toscano said the annual forum was one of the highlights of his year.
"I want to hear what you have to say," he said to the audience. "We cannot do our jobs without you, because you come up with many ideas and we need ideas."
He said that the education spending reductions were not limited to universities. K-12 education is also affected, with proposed cuts are focused on non-classroom personnel. He also warned that the U.Va. Medical Center would be hurt by a reduction in Medicaid reimbursement. Public safety budgets are also taking a hit, and some mental health facilities would be closed.
Toscano echoed Hanger's remarks on prisons by noting that the governor's plan called for early release of non-violent offenders as a way to reduce prison costs.
The legislators mentioned the governor's proposal to double the current cigarette tax to 60 cents per pack, but during the question-and-answer period some audience members expressed support for an increase in the gasoline tax. One man suggested the additional revenue should be spent on alternative transportation, such as light rail.
Deeds said he had voted for an increase in the gasoline tax and said he supports rail, adding that the state should look ahead 50 years to determine what the transportation system will look like.
Hanger said that the "political dynamic" was not present to increase the cigarette tax. "I don't think any form of tax increase will pass," he said, but noted if there is an increase in the fuel tax, it should be used to improve roads.
Bell agreed that it was bad time to raise taxes, but Toscano replied it was always a bad time to raise taxes, and the state needs to "bite the bullet" on funding solutions to its transportation problems.
Virginia must look at its long-term needs, Toscano said, citing a report written several years ago — and rejected by the legislature — that projected the state would need to spend $1 billion a year on its transportation problems. He said that maintaining current infrastructure should take priority over new construction.
Toscano said he would support a gasoline tax because it is user-based. The state also should increase passenger rail, and transportation in localities needs improvement, he added.
Scott Burns, a landscape supervisor in Facilities Management, asked the legislators to remember blue-collar workers when making their decisions. He opposed Kaine's proposal to increase the cigarette tax because he thought it was "preying on an addiction." He said if the legislature were serious about spreading the sacrifice, they should tax gasoline.
"Only a gallon of gas touches everybody in the state," he said.
He also reminded the legislators that localities will be raising their taxes as well.
Doug Moseley, an alumnus and University employee, said he was concerned about the morale of state workers who were not getting raises and who are seeing layoffs in their departments. He suggested that the state devise an early retirement buyout to let some of the older workers leave so younger workers could keep their jobs.
Deeds replied that morale was always a concern, but said that buyouts seldom save more than they cost. He said layoffs were being spread around, but would not affect vital services.
Toscano said the proposed layoffs were being phased in hopes that if the economy improves, some may not be necessary. But, he said, government services are provided by people and there would be long-term impacts.
Sandridge told the audience that the University has established a new Web site dealing with the state budget and it would soon accept employees' suggestions for reducing expenses.