Three big budget issues still unsettled in Virginia

Sunday - 2/20/2011, 2:13pm EST

Hank Silverberg, wtop.com

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia's lawmakers are heading toward the end of their 45-day legislative session with big decisions to make on the three big items that directly affect people's lives: transportation, education and health care.

The House and Senate will try to reconcile differences in bills on each of those items as they move toward approval on the revised 2012 budget.

The biggest gap may be on education, where the two chambers are almost $200 million apart. The democrats want to add about $100 million to the $5.5 billion proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, while the Republican-controlled House wants to cut $93 million from the governor's plan. Much of that is aid to local schools for K-12 education.

The two chambers are also $150 million apart on transportation. The disagreement centers on where the money will come from, with the House bill taking it from the state's general fund. The overall plan would borrow about $3 billion.

The lawmakers also have to set aside millions of dollars for treatment of the mentally disabled after being cited for insufficient care by the federal government.

Despite all these decisions, Mark Rozell, George Mason University professor of public policy, says Virginia is much better off than many states.

"A lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that the regional economy here is just a little bit more protected than, for example, in the upper Midwest," he says.

But Rozell says the Virginia General Assembly is also transferring a lot of the tough decisions to local governments, including what specific cuts to make in the schools.

The General Assembly is supposed to adjourn next Saturday. In past years, many of the budget decisions have gone down to the last few hours. Budget negotiators began talking early last week, hoping to avoid that type of decision this year.

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