General Assembly adjourns
The 2010 session of the Virginia General Assembly wrapped up its business and adjourned on Sunday, one day after the scheduled terminal date. Given the drastic nature of the cuts they made, it's remarkable that the Republican-led House of Delegates and the Democratic-led State Senate were able to reach a compromise without too much delay, as has been the case in years past. Anticipated state revenues are $4 billion less than what is needed to maintain current programs, and because Gov. McDonnell had taken a strong stand against any tax hikes during his campaign, the 2011 budget has been pared down to the same level as in 2006, about $70 billion. The budget reduces spending for public education by $250 million, which may force many localities to shut down even more schools than they have been recently. It's a truly awful situation for anyone who works in the education field. One of the more complicated provisions cuts Medicaid reimbursements by 7 percent unless the Federal government provides $370 million in support for the program. I'm not sure how that is supposed to work out. See the Richmond Times Dispatch.
In the Washington Post, columnist Robert McCartney picked the winners and losers from this year's legislative session. Among the "winners" is new Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli who garnered publicity by writing a letter to public universities with his legal opinion that there is no statutory basis for extending special rights to gays and lesbians. (Gov. McDonnell got dragged into that fight, trying to triangulate a very divisive issue, something he has been trying to avoid.) McCartney says that Virginia's image was a loser because of this controversy. Among other winners was Northern Virginia, whose schools could have lost $118 million in state funding if a changed formula had been adopted. This may signify growing political clout for the Washington suburbs, and rural schools in Virginia may suffer as a result. Another winning group was gun owners, as it will soon be legal for licensed people to carry firearms into restaurants. The cause of redistricting reform was another loser, however, thanks to hostility from certain Republicans in the House of Delegates.
I had mixed feelings about some of the fiscal issues. Given that the state government is constitutionally bound to balance its budget, there was very little leeway in the current tough economic climate. In a way, I wish that McDonnell had shown some willingness to bargain in exchange for modest tax hikes so as to avoid firing too many teachers, law enforcement officers, etc., but if he had begun his term in office by bending on that issue, the Democrats might have concluded that they could push him around. A rigid stance on the budget was probably necessary for political reasons, as well as economic reasons.
Richmond field trip
Just like last year, I took a group of students from my U.S. Government class last Thursday to observe the General Assembly in session. Delegates Ben Cline (24th District, Amherst/Rockbridge) and Scott Garrett (23rd District, Lynchburg) talked to the students, most of whom were awe-struck. Garrett is one of the six newly elected Republican members, and I was impressed by his command of constitutional and economic issues. He pointed out that each additional day the state legislature is in session costs the taxpayers about $20,000. The students seemed to get a lot out of the trip, which made the otherwise-dry material I teach somewhat more lively and interesting. I didn't take my camera this year, but you can see photos from our field trip to Richmond last year on the Richmond 2009 photo gallery page.
Muslim gives invocation
Coincidentally, in the House of Delegates chamber, our group witnessed a historical event that generated some controversy. For the first time ever, a Muslim cleric was asked to say the invocation prayer at the start of Thursday's session. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of community outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Northern Virginia, called for peace and mutual understanding, but a dozen or so delegates were not present during the invocation, an apparent (low-key) walkout in protest against Abdul-Malik's association with the mosque where two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended services. See the Richmond Times Dispatch and his own Web site: imamjohari.com.