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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Kory’s Report from Richmond: Budget battles to highlight next legislative session

By Del. Kaye Kory

I’m quite certain that Virginia government is not at the top of many people’s’ minds. In the commonwealth, though, this is a busy time for legislators, as we prepare for the upcoming session that begins Jan. 12.

Recently, there has been some good news about Virginia’s economy. As you know, there was a $400 million surplus in the state’s fiscal year 2010 budget, and there are indications of continued recovery in FY 11. Of course, these gains include the effects of suspended pension payments and artificially accelerated tax collections passed by the legislature last session.

Still, this is good news, and I think we should expect from the governor and legislature tangible movement to repair some of the damage from last year’s drastic cuts in such key areas as social services, mental health, and higher education.

Unfortunately, the governor’s proposed budget amendments do not have much to cheer about in these areas. Social services and higher education will continue to face cuts in state funding. I am particularly unhappy about the effects our policies are having on higher education. These cuts have been reflected in in-state tuition increases of 10 percent or more. Virginia Commonwealth University increased in-state tuition by 24 percent last year.

These kinds of increases inevitably have a disproportionate effect on the working and middle class students for whom higher education is critical to the realization of their aspirations. These kinds of increases seem, to me, to be reneging on a contract. Students are admitted based on one tuition rate and then, through no fault of their own, wind up paying significantly more. I’m studying legislative options for addressing this problem.

The governor has proposed a 3 percent raise for state employees, which is also applicable to teachers across the commonwealth. This will be their first raise in four years. That’s good news for education. Unfortunately, this increase is accompanied by a new requirement for these employees to pay 5 percent of their salary toward retirement. (By the way, the employee share of retirement contributions was suspended in the early 1980s as a concession to offset the denial of pay raises at the time. I have no trouble with employee contributions to retirement, but it seems to me we should agree that this is a bad time to reduce employee take-home pay if we also believe that it is a bad time for tax increases.

Let me stop here. We will have the next several months to continue this conversation in Richmond.

This is a time of year that is very special to all of us. My family returns to Virginia from as far away as California for the holiday. This is a real blessing. But, there are many for whom the holidays are a lonely time that bring added economic pressure. Each year I am impressed by the generosity and ingenuity of my friends and neighbors in the community who devote their energies to brightening the lives of those less fortunate.

One project that I’d like to mention is “Decorate A Vet,” which is the brainchild of local businessman Jeff Jones. His goal was, literally, to brighten the holidays for veterans and their families living on tight budgets by decorating their homes inside and out. He has collected donations and volunteers and has “decorated” veterans for the past three weekends. Pictures of the decorated homes, veterans, and happy volunteers are posted on Facebook. But, the decorating is not ending with the season. Jeff has located storage space and is accepting contributions to be used in the 2011 holiday season.

I wish you all a bright and decorated holiday season.

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