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House plan makes improvements over Gov. Kaine's original cuts

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By Delegate Kathy Byron

Temperatures made it feel more like May than February, but legislators didn’t get to spend much time outdoors.  This week, we had some of the longest days of the session, completing our work on all bills filed by delegates and approving a package of amendments to the 2008-2010 Biennial Budget. 

Valentine’s Day causes many offices in the General Assembly to decorate, normally in a manner that looks as though Hallmark was having a clearance sale.  But this year, many legislative staffers got involved in additional charitable activities.  As a result, fundraising efforts in the building collected more than $6,400 for the Richmond Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.  There was a big drive for the Central Virginia Food Bank that netted more than $1,000 in donations, as well as a lot of food.

This week, I had the honor of leading what is known as a “center aisle presentation.”  When notable guests come to Capitol, they are introduced during our working sessions on the House floor.  For example, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, was introduced in a center aisle presentation this week.

The notable guest who was the subject of my presentation hailed from a little closer to home.  I had the honor of presenting to the House the 2009 Virginia Teacher of the Year, Stephanie Doyle.  Mrs. Doyle is a sixth grade history teacher at a Roanoke middle school, and she is an outstanding teacher.  In addition to her exceptional abilities in the classroom, she established a special program to mentor middle-school girls both academically and socially.  Just about everyone can remember a special teacher they had that inspired them, so I had a lot of my fellow delegates joining me in the center aisle when I made my presentation.   

This week marked the deadline for both the House and the Senate to complete work on their respective plans to amend Virginia’s existing budget.  While both bodies introduced their plans earlier in the week, only the House approved a spending plan.  The Senate decided against voting on its own version of the budget.  They will instead wait for the House’s plan to arrive and amend it.

Considering the challenges of the current economic downturn, the House’s plan made significant improvements on the cuts proposed by Governor Kaine in December.  The primary goal of the plan is to balance the budget, end earmarks, protect core services, and enact policies that put us back on the road to economic recovery.  The plan achieves those goals, and then some.

The House plan speeds up the timeline for five major state colleges and university construction projects, which are estimated to aid in creating 3,400 new jobs.  Since dollars spent promoting tourism have consistently shown one of the strongest returns on investment, one of the amendments made by the House provides an additional $3 million in funding to help enhance the vitality of this key component of our economy.  And, we restored $500,000 to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to help them market Virginia’s #1 ranking as the best place in America for businesses to do business.

The package of amendments we approved included the Teacher and Support Staff Enhanced Retirement Incentive Plan, which should help local school divisions retain young teachers and avoid layoffs.  We also restored $50 million of the cuts proposed by Governor Kaine to higher education.  And to make it possible for more Virginia students to attend our state-supported colleges and universities, we structured $12.5 million for enrollment growth requiring a higher percentage of in-state students.

The House plan also makes mental health care a priority, providing $1.5 million for early intervention services for developmentally delayed children, including those with autism and autism-spectrum disorders.  We also voted to restore the 200 Mental Retardation (MR) waiver slots that the Governor proposed to cut, and also increased by another 200 the number of MR waivers available in 2010.  This decision was the latest in a continuing effort by House Republicans to fund and strengthen the MR Waiver program, which is a home and community based program that funds services to help individuals with intellectual disability remain in the community and avoid institutional care.

Since public safety remains a top priority, the plan approved by the House rejects Governor Kaine’s risky scheme to provide early release for certain felons.  In addition, the plan offsets a portion of the Kaine Administration’s proposed cuts by restoring over $9 million to sheriffs and commonwealth’s attorneys, all of whom are on the front lines in the battle to keep Virginia’s families, neighborhoods and businesses safe.

Most impressively, the House approved its package of amendments by an 88 to 11 margin, winning strong bipartisan support.

Although the session is winding down, we never tire of visitors.  If you’ll be visiting the Capitol before the end of session, make sure to stop by our office, located in Room 811 of the General Assembly Building.  You can contact us here by sending an e-mail to DelKByron@house.virginia.gov or by sending a letter to me at PO Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218-0406.  Or, if you just want me to know your opinion on a particular issue, you can call on the toll-free Constituent Viewpoint Hotline at 1.800.889.0229.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s column, and there’ll be more news from the Capitol in this same paper next week.