A lot of differences this year

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By Delegate Kathy Byron

This year’s General Assembly began with all of the customary events taking place.  Legislators reacquainted themselves with their surroundings and started the process of reviewing bills that have been assigned to their committees.  On opening day, Governor Kaine delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address with all of the usual ceremony.  But although much was similar to past sessions, there are a lot of differences this year.

Obvious to everyone, some of the big differences involve the current economic climate and its effects on state government.  Our economy is in recession and the state budget is experiencing a shortfall.  Legislators are examining ways during this year’s 46 day session to make the recession both short and shallow.  And, we’re working on closing a budget shortfall that is estimated to surpass $3 Billion or 5% of the state’s annual general fund budget.

For the House of Delegates, the challenge of the task at hand is not the only difference this year.  There are several major changes to House operations.  For starters, Delegates are dealing with the first-ever limit on the number of bills they can introduce.  For someone that believes in limited government, I think this is a good measure.  Limiting bills is common for other state legislatures, but Virginia has never attempted to do so.  As it turns out, this may have been the ideal year to attempt such a limit.  By doing so, the House can integrate some other reforms and more importantly spend the time to examine closely how your tax dollars will be spent as we make critical budget spending decisions.

This year, votes made by delegates in subcommittees will also be available online through the Legislative Information System.  In previous years, the number of bills and resolutions submitted (often numbering in the thousands) made posting information on legislation at every juncture of the process a daunting task.  With the new bill limit, that change is now a reality.

The House has also cut its operating budget by 15 percent this year, finding savings in every nook and cranny available.  But in examining ways to cut its own budget, the House found an affordable way put its session online for viewing by the general public.  So, you can now go online at the General Assembly’s website (http://legis.state.va.us) to view House floor sessions.  

The budget shortfall will undoubtedly overshadow any other news coming from Richmond this year.  Ordinarily when you hear about a state budget shortfall, it means Virginia’s government does not have as much money as it thought it would.  Because of the housing slump, job losses, and reductions in consumer spending, Virginia is receiving less in revenues from the real estate, income tax, and sales taxes.  As a result, the Commonwealth will have much less than it had last year.  This has produced a significant budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.

To add to the dilemma, last year the Governor proposed his budget based on overly optimistic projections of revenue growth of 6.6 percent in the second biennium and funded a number of new and expanded government programs with this anticipated growth.  The House repeatedly questioned the administration regarding these projections and warned of the dangers of planning future spending on unrealistic revenue projections.  Unfortunately, that is what happened.

 Most often, two options are touted to resolve budget shortfalls: raising taxes or cutting spending.  Of these, raising taxes is especially perilous in recessions.  When government takes more money from people in the form of higher taxes, families have less money to spend.  With less money to spend, families buy less, and when families buy less, recessions get worse.

That leaves cutting spending as the better of two difficult options.  Looking for savings in government isn’t always easy.  But there may be more opportunities for reducing spending in Virginia’s budget than in other states.  The National Association of State Budget Officers lists Virginia as one of the top five states in spending growth over the last decade.  All totaled, Virginia’s budget has more than doubled in a decade, handily outpacing population and inflation.

As required by Virginia’s constitution, Governor Kaine has already proposed his ideas for cutting spending.  Now, the responsibility of acting on those proposals and considering other ideas falls to the General Assembly.  That task will be the primary preoccupation of this year’s session. 

My session legislative assistant, Alex Mason, is staffing our office here in Richmond, 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.  If you just want to be sure I know how you feel about a particular issue being considered during this General Assembly session, you can call on the toll-free Constituent Viewpoint Hotline at 1.800.889.0229.  There, you can leave your message about a bill and it will be promptly forwarded to my office.

Friendly faces from home are always a welcome sight here in Richmond, so if you’re planning to visit the Capitol between now and early March, please be sure to stop by our office.  Better yet, call us in advance so we can schedule your visit to the Governor’s mansion and other capitol tours.

Once again this year, this newspaper has generously agreed to print these columns during session.  This is a public service on their part, and I am very grateful.

Despite the record-breaking cold snap, try to stay warm and enjoy the week.  Look for more news from Richmond in this same place next week.