Sunday, February 21, 2010

Virginia's Budget Crunch: Lots of Complaints, No Solutions

"So what do you think of your governor?" my youngest sister asked after the first month of Bob McDonnell's term in Virginia had come and gone. It seemed to be the predominant question on the lips of many folks after the details of the Governor's first budget were released last week - and it was a proposal that caused groups from across the political and social spectrum a great deal of heartache (heartburn, anxiety, stress, and gut-wrenching nausea are acceptable substitute terms based on what I've read and heard over the past several days). Never mind that once a governor or president is elected, that person is everyone's governor or president, regardless of whether everyone for that person or not.

In short, it called for massive cuts in education funding, state low-income insurance funding, subsidies for lunches for low-income children, and numerous other programs hitting families from all demographics and income levels. I'm a bit stunned that anyone would be surprised by this proposal; the Commonwealth's legislators and governors over the years - from both parties - have allowed a near-term $2.2 billion budget shortfall to develop, and without something being done it's only going to get worse.

So what should be done to address the shortfall without cutting programs? Surprisingly, no one has offered a single concrete answer (other than eliminating the Commonwealth's car tax, which was rejected by the Governor). Whenever situations like this arise, the agreement that something must be done to address our budgetary problems is unanimous - but when asked where the cuts should come, a circular firing squad develops and everyone starts firing away at everyone else. Naturally, there's always the option of raising taxes (awkward silence here, followed by the sound of crickets and the occasional cough among the audience).

Let's focus on education for a moment. With one child in public schools and one entering the system in just a few years, with a father who was a teacher for nearly 20 years, and with many friends who are current and former teachers, education is something that is very important to me. Anything that would result in depriving my children of a good, substantial education, or in eliminating a job held by one of my friends would be a difficult thing indeed. But the longer-term ramifications of doing nothing now to address the budget problems could be far, far worse; however, no one seems to be thinking beyond the next year and into the out years. If nothing is done now, what shape will schools in Virginia be in when both of my kids are in high school? At that point, how drastic will the cuts have to be to address the problem?

No one wants to cut education. Transportation funding is off-limits. Social program support is taboo when it comes to cuts. Low-income healthcare is forbidden. The list goes on and on.

So what do we do? I keep looking for someone to offer a solution and to this point haven't seen one. I even looked to the media to offer some sort of fix - and you know the cupboard is really bare when you even think about looking to them for a solution. A perfect example is today's Roanoke Times, with a several-hundred word column - fully one-third of the page - by editorial page editor Dan Radmacher entitled "McDonnell's Budget Cuts Too Deeply." As I expected, he did a great job of giving his opinion on the problem, but by the end of the column his complaining had yet to give way to something even remotely resembling a recommended solution.

When your car is broken, you look for a way to get it fixed. If your house needs repairs, you cut your budget wherever possible to pay for those repairs. It's just a shame we can't take that same common-sense approach to fixing our state.

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