For a state with the motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” the commonwealth of Virginia places a surprising level of budgetary discretion in the hands of its governor.
After a grueling three-month campaign for sanity, waged primarily by the Senate Democrats, weeks later than expected, the General Assembly passed and sent a budget to Gov. McDonnell. The Senate was able to mitigate some of the corrosive impacts of the governor’s proposed budget by restoring $45 million in human services and $215 million in public education over the biennium. These amounts will impact thousands of Virginians, but they represent less than one-half of 1 percent of the $85 billion budget.
Up next is the final step in the process: The General Assembly next week considers a stack of unilateral amendments McDonnell “recommends” to the document we sent him. We will consider 100 or so proposed amendments. The governor’s recommendations become part of the budget unless voted down by a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates or the Senate. So, as a practical matter, the governor almost certainly has the votes to get what he wants.
The proposed amendments include changes in agreed-upon funding levels, changes to program priorities, and even changes to policy, with a modicum of budget sleight-of-hand to cover additional service reductions to the commonwealth. Overall, net dollar changes are not enormous, which is not particularly surprising, given the partisan fervor that his supporters in the General Assembly applied toward sticking with their “no new taxes” agenda in creating the budget.
To appreciate the unilateral power the governor can exercise in this process, interested Virginians should spend a few minutes reading through the text of the proposed amendments. Some of the changes seem highly technical, involve large dollar amounts, and are not explained at all. Some seem small and incongruous. For example, amendment 5 to HB1300 “provides $110,000 in additional appropriation to cover unanticipated costs incurred during the transition of information technology oversight from the Virginia Information Technology Agency to the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.” Unanticipated? Instead of hiring two more teachers for the same amount?
One of the signature changes included in the amendments is the proposal to reverse funding cuts in the “Governor’s Opportunity Fund,” increasing funding from the proposed $6 million to $12 million that the governor can use at his discretion to attract job creators to the commonwealth.
Having a slush fund that the governor can use to entice a movie producer to film in Richmond or a warehouse distribution facility to locate in Virginia Beach may seem appealing on the surface. But even apart from the many ways such funding could be abused, this amendment seems to me to be a transparent, partisan effort to play the “jobs card,” distracting from the far more urgent, higher-impact challenges of investment in transportation infrastructure, K-12 schools, and higher education.
Transportation, once again, is the elephant in the room for the 2012 General Assembly legislative session. On this challenge, I think both the General Assembly and the governor rate a great big “F,” with a dunce cap.
Almost without exception, my friends and associates, progressive and conservative, consider increased investment in transportation infrastructure a no-brainer. Yes, good roads and safe bridges, cost-effective mass transportation, and smart development policies, cost money. As time passes and the problem increases, real solutions cost even more.
Whether transportation investment is based on new, dedicated funding sources, or simply leverages the commonwealth’s immaculate credit rating, the point is that “investment” is NOT identical to “consumption.” We invest because we anticipate economic returns in the future. No investment, no returns. And, this fact is as true in southwest Virginia as it is in Northern Virginia and the Tidewater region. By the way, investment in infrastructure is also a massively effective job creator in the short run, as well.
I will be in Richmond next week to debate this last step in the budget process. I’m sure my enthusiasm will increase, but as I review these proposals today, I can’t help but be amazed that Virginians tolerate politicians who scratch their heads and maintain there’s nothing we can do.
Kaye Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates.