Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rotten to the core

So now we have a budget.
It’s an ugly, ugly budget.

Granted, it’s not as bad as it could have been.

That’s because the Senate prevailed and scaled back some of the cuts that the House of Delegates and Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed for public education. Still, with the cuts the legislature added and those in former Gov. Tim Kaine’s introduced budget, public education got hit for about $1.2 billion in the next biennial budget.

That’s more than a quarter of the $4.2 billion in reductions that had to be made due to declining state revenues.


The poor fiscal policy involved in offsetting another $600 billion in cuts by borrowing money that should have gone into the Virginia Retirement System was also ugly. That money has to be paid back – with interest – by 2013. If the economy doesn’t turn around significantly in the next few years, this could be a fiscal time bomb.

The new budget has been hit with the bipartisan ugly stick. It’s ugly to Democrats because of drastic cuts in education, in health care and to state employees. It should be ugly to Republicans because it fails to identify and support the core functions of state government as the GOP promised.

This budget is rotten at its core.

Because we have a budget that says highway restrooms are more of a core function of state government than public education. McDonnell cut the ribbon this week on the first of the 19 closed highway rest stops he promised on the campaign trial to re-open. We should be padlocking every one of the rest stops if that would keep a few teachers on staff or keep class sizes down. It’s a core function of state government to build highways (by the way, there’s no new money for that either), but providing rest rooms and snacks can be taken care of by private enterprise off the Interstate exits.

This budget is rotten because it says corporate welfare is more of a core function of state government than public education. McDonnell’s $50 million package of economic development measures, some of which will end up as incentives for companies (like Northrop Grumman, which is currently believed by some legislators to be cheating the state on an information technology contract) to re-locate here. McDonnell hopes the package will create about 29,000 jobs over the next three to five years. Meanwhile, the Virginia Education Association estimates that the public education budget cuts will cost nearly 20,000 jobs now. That’s going to help the state’s economy, thanks a lot, Gov. McD.

And, apparently, refunding a local tax is more of a core function of state government than health care for the indigent. I’ve written enough about the shift-and-shaft car tax “cut” of 1998. I’ll just point out that the $950 million that this local tax costs the state every year could have helped a lot of sick kids and kept a lot of teachers working this year. But touching that money would have acknowledged that we live in a commonwealth. It would have required our political leaders to be less cynical about how selfish we are.

There are a lot of areas in the budget where the promise to focus on core functions of state government was forgotten.

For example, the ridiculous security measure at the State Capitol and General Assembly office building as still in effect, brought about by the national fit of bed-wetting we had after 9/11. Aside from the fact that neither of those buildings was ever a legitimate terrorist target, the legislature has made the security precautions laughable by assuring that concealed weapons permit holders can bring their guns into either building.

Similarly, while cuts in the state payroll were made, the most superfluous state employees, the Executive Protective Detail, remains intact. In the entire 400-year history of Virginia there’s been one assassination attempt on a governor. That was 50 years ago, by a nut, who missed. Virginia governor doesn’t need a palace guard, he’s not a royal governor any more, he’s just a guy.

To be fair, we ought to knock down some other politicians who’ve gotten too big for their britches as well. In my city, Richmond, the mayor has a protective detail and a driver. That’s just goofy, it was only a few years ago that Tim Kaine, as mayor of Richmond, was driving himself to work. Hell, Williamsburg’s mayor walks to work. Any city whose mayor has gotten imperial delusions should have had its state aid cut by the amount of the unnecessary security.

Those kinds of common sense cuts to the state budget wouldn’t have produced all the money needed to fill this year’s budget hole. It was a very tough budget year. But at least some of them should have been implemented before one public school teachers was put out of work.

Because among the functions of state government, I can’t think of one that is a more core function than public education. Making public education bear the burden of the bulk of the budget cuts was rotten.
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