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State budget requests shrink: With education and Medicaid facing cuts, lawmakers trim requests for other projects.
[January 26, 2009]

State budget requests shrink: With education and Medicaid facing cuts, lawmakers trim requests for other projects.

(Roanoke Times, The (Roanoke, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 26--RICHMOND -- Just as the national recession forced many families to cut back on Christmas presents, state lawmakers are being forced to trim or abandon altogether their requests to send state money to museums, universities and other projects in their home districts.

Faced with a projected $2.9 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Tim Kaine has proposed cutting core state services such as Medicaid and public education. As a result, most legislators have cut their list of budget amendments short this year.

Some legislators, including Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Botetourt County, and House Minority Leader Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County, didn't submit any budget amendments at all.

"With the economy the way it is, how can you say you're going to add funding for a museum when Medicaid and many of the other programs are already in dire straits?" Smith asked.

"The truth of the matter is that we don't have any discretionary money to spend," said Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke. "In these tight times, you're looking at reductions in K-through-12 pupil funding. You're looking at a $3 [billion] to $4 billion -- we're not even sure -- deficit that we're dealing with. It's just not a year that we can help."

Others have cut back from past years and asked for money to fund only bills they say will result in a savings down the road.

But some have continued to request millions of dollars for what they say are important projects. Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Del. Jim Shuler, D-Blacksburg, put in requests of well more than $70 million each for projects at Virginia Tech, including the renovation of Davidson Hall.

Edwards said his requests are aimed at capital projects and programs that will benefit those hit by the down economy.

"I think it's worth putting these budget amendments in and fighting for them and seeing where it goes," Edwards said. "At least the amendments are there if it turns out we have more money than we thought, or if some stimulus package comes down or in reprioritizing they realize how important higher education is."

Neither Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, nor Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, requested a large number of budget amendments, but they both asked for $18 million to help fund Center in the Square's planned "Igniting Dreams, Energizing Promises" renovation.

Griffith said the request isn't for cash, but for a line of credit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources that will be repaid once the Center obtains federal, state, and New Market tax credits. The request is his only budget amendment.

"Most of the time we just can't do it, [but] this was creative enough we thought it was worth a shot," Griffith said.

If awarded, the loan would be paid within 180 days after workers complete the renovation, Center President Jim Sears said. The renovation would further upgrade the historic building, which houses a number of museums and arts organizations. If all goes smoothly, that work should be done by late 2010, Sears said.

The Roanoke City Council has already committed $2.5 million to Center and two of its museums, and Sears said that private donors have chipped in about $3 million toward the renovation.

The state loan would provide the lion's share of the project's funding -- if lawmakers approve it.

Ware said that Sears and his board are aware of the odds against that: "I've had long conversations with Jim and his board, and they understand there's absolutely probably no way they're going to get anywhere near that amount of money, if any money at all."

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