Facing a $4 billion budget gap, the General Assembly went about its distasteful task expeditiously, adopting a $70 billion-plus, two-year spending plan Sunday, only a day late.
The budget, which returns to the spending levels of 2006, slashes millions from education, health care and public safety, areas largely sheltered from previous cuts. While specifics are in flux, schools take a $646 million hit, meaning layoffs and larger class sizes, and health programs are cut by more than $1 billion, reducing Medicaid payments and limiting the number of children and mentally disabled adults receiving state care. Law enforcement was spared deeper cuts and arts funding, which the House of Delegates had considered eliminating, will be cut 15 percent over the biennium.
With tax hikes off the table -- both Gov. Bob McDonnell and assembly Republicans were adamantly opposed -- the legislature avoided even more draconian cuts by imposing $95 million in new fees and by diverting $620 million from the Virginia Retirement System. The latter gambit will also spare local governments from having to make pension contributions although the payments will have to be made up.
Although the budget dominated the session, Republicans also sought to limit gun control and expand the death penalty, initiatives largely blocked by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Five Democrats, though, broke ranks to support Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel's bill making it illegal for the federal government to require people to buy health insurance, a mischievous measure giving the willfully uninsured the "freedom" to mooch on the insured.
McDonnell kept a relatively low profile, mostly working behind the scenes on the budget, but he won money for his job creation initiatives and a limited expansion of charter schools. His focus was distracted by the flare-up over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's opinion limiting state colleges' efforts to ban discrimination against gays.
While Republicans in Richmond sustained their antipathy to tax hikes, localities may not be so fortunate if they want to preserve government jobs and services.