Two of Virginia’s most powerful budget negotiators say crafting a state spending plan during the upcoming legislative session will require serious cooperation and compromise.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) and Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) fielded questions from reporters Tuesday during a day-long seminar sponsored by the Associated Press and the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association.
Although Howell and Cox said they hope both sides of the aisle can get along well enough to carve another $3 billion out of an already austere budget, they also foreshadowed serious disagreements.
TAX INCREASE “NOT GOING ANYWHERE”
Cox said he hopes outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine (D) will not include a tax increase in the budget he’ll recommend to legislators next week.
“If you do that, it really gets us off on the wrong foot,” Cox said.
“[Kaine] should present the best budget he can come up with,” Howell countered, saying she believes last year’s proposal to double Virginia’s cigarette tax — a measure killed by House Republicans — is still “a good idea.”
Howell said she believed an elimination of the state’s car tax cut should be among the options Kaine considers while drafting his budget.
But Cox said the idea is a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
“I do not see it going anywhere and that’s why I think it’s counterproductive to put it in the budget.”
Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell (R) has said he will not increase taxes during his term. McDonnell is set to address reporters here later in the day.
Among McDonnell’s major platform plans was a plan to privatize the state’s liquor stores and use the proceeds to fund transportation improvements.
Howell told reporters that the idea was “very unpopular” in the state Senate and lawmakers in that chamber are “not inclined to give up the profits and take them away” from the general fund budget.
She also expressed some doubt that the plan could generate the $500 million for roads that McDonnell estimates.
Although he said he couldn’t speak to the revenue generated by the sale of ABC stores, Cox indicated that delegates will take up the measure.
EDUCATION AND EQUALITY
The two lawmakers also disagreed about the extent to which spending reductions for public schools will affect students in the classroom.
Cox — a high school civics teacher — pointed to a number of administrative and support positions he believes can be eliminated.
“You’ve got front office personnel — I’m still trying to figure out what they do,” he said, referring specifically to curriculum specialists who are supposed to help teachers design lesson plans.
“The kid sitting in that chair will never know they’re gone. They’ve never seen them, never met them.”
Cox and Howell agreed that the state might need to waive restrictions on class sizes in order to help cash-strapped school divisions.
But Howell said significant changes to local schools will undoubtedly affect the quality of education for some children. She also said cuts to public school funding will lead to a drop in band, orchestra and language immersion programs that benefit students.
Cox suggested lawmakers enter into a better dialogue with school superintendents about the state-mandated restrictions that could be hurting local districts.
CUTS TO PUBLIC SAFETY
As with K-12 school funding, lawmakers typically try to limit the reductions made to public safety.
One of the major sticking points between budget conferees earlier this year was how much to cut funding for local sheriffs and Commonwealth’s attorneys. Legislators used federal money and were able to fully fund those so-called Constitutional officers during this last budget process.
Both Cox and Howell, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee’s public safety subcommittee, said they want to limit cuts to those officers again this year.
“At this point, with this deficit, I think law enforcement needs to be aware that they probably will get some cuts,” Howell said.