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General Assembly convenes

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With the General Assembly agonizing over a $3 billion budget hole and the prospect of pruning basic human services to help fill it, lobbyists and lawmakers say they’ve never seen things so bleak.
‘‘This is going to be a very difficult year. I think it’s just going to be a brutal environment,’’ said Linda McMinimy, a lobbyist who has worked the halls of Capitol Square for 25 years.
Money, or a frightful shortage of it, dominated the 2009 legislature even before it convened today at noon.
The troubled budget will influence nearly every facet of this year’s 46-day Assembly session.
The worst recession in decades has confronted lawmakers with the grim chore of cutting even core services such as public education and health care for people at risk that had been held harmless in tough times past.
‘‘It is really hard when you see their plight,” Del. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, said last week after she and four other lawmakers heard four hours of often heartrending testimony from elderly or disabled people for whom state support is a tenuous lifeline.
Last month, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine presented budget amendments to the legislature that embody his fourth round of cuts since the fall of 2007. The most recent — and deepest — round pares $418 million from the state’s already stingy Medicaid support for the aged, disabled and indigent, eliminates nearly 2,000 state jobs and reduces state aid to local public schools by more than $450 million starting with the next school year.
Kaine, who later this month begins moonlighting as President Barack Obama’s new Democratic National Committee chairman, has proposed cushioning the blow to Medicaid with a projected $150 million a year from doubling the 30-cent per-pack tax on cigarettes. But even Democratic allies in the House and Senate see little prospect of its passing in tobacco-friendly Virginia.
‘‘It’s a viable option, but I’m not counting on that to pull us through,’’ said Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania.
The leader of the House’s Democratic minority, Del. Ward Armstrong, won’t support it. Shopkeepers in his Martinsville-area district fear they would lose their cigarette sales to competitors just across the North Carolina line.
‘‘I just think that if I had to vote today I’d vote no, and there’s nothing I can see that’s going to change my mind,’’ Armstrong said Friday.
David Bailey said he hasn’t seen this level of austerity in the 26 years he has lobbied in Richmond. When economic downturns forced fiscal retrenchments before delegates and senators would still encourage those hunting for state funding to seek budget amendments anyway, even if approval was unlikely, he said.
‘‘This year, they’re telling me that this is not the year to do that, that it’s just not going to happen,’’ said Bailey, whose clients include several businesses and volunteer firefighters.
Proposals Kaine has put before the House and Senate budget writers in December reflect the gravity of the fiscal crisis:
•Withdrawing $500 million from the state’s ‘‘rainy day’’ cash reserves;
•Closing some older state prisons and allowing some well-behaved inmates to be released 90 days early to reduce prison crowding;
•No pay raises for state employees;
•Closing the Southwestern Mental Health Institute in Marion and the Commonwealth Center for Adolescents and Children in Staunton;
•15 percent reductions to the base budgets of all state-supported colleges and universities except for community colleges;
•Cutting 1,150 Virginia Department of Transportation jobs within two years.
What happens with the budget bill ripples through nearly all other legislation. The budget bill supersedes other state law. There are, however, other issues this General Assembly will have to address. Some key areas and bills that address them:
Voting
There were deep concerns heading into last year’s election that there were too few polling places and too little time for a record turnout in the presidential election. New bills would: allow people to vote early without citing a reason, as the state’s absentee voting system now requires; end a ban on voters wearing campaign T-shirts, buttons, stickers or hats or other inside polling places; require voters to register by party; clarify rules by which students at Virginia colleges can register and vote in their campus communities; outlaw campaign contributions from foreign nationals.
Constitutional amendments
Allow governors to serve two consecutive terms; retain the unique one-term limit for governors, but extend it from four years to six; give an independent bipartisan commission the job the legislature now has of redrawing congressional and legislative districts in 2011; repeal the constitutional amendment Virginia voters approved in 2006 that banned same-sex marriage; adds the state’s existing guarantee that union membership can’t be a condition for employment to the state Constitution.
Individual rights
Required use of handsfree mobile phones by drivers; a ban on driving while texting; a ban on smoking in Virginia bars and restaurants; increase maximum judgments plaintiffs could collect in medical malpractice lawsuits; require substitution of generic drugs for name-brand prescriptions in claims filed as workers compensation unless doctors demand a brand name and state a medical reason for it.
Moral issues
Required curricula promoting marriage be taught in public school family life education courses; define the moment of fertilization as the instant at which the state Constitution guarantees ‘‘the right to enjoyment of life,’’ effectively ending all abortion.
The deadline for legislators to file bills for the 2009 session is Jan. 23. This year’s session is scheduled to end on Feb. 28.

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General Assembly convenes

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With the General Assembly agonizing over a $3 billion budget hole and the prospect of pruning basic human services to help fill it, lobbyists and lawmakers say they’ve never seen things so bleak.
‘‘This is going to be a very difficult year. I think it’s just going to be a brutal environment,’’ said Linda McMinimy, a lobbyist who has worked the halls of Capitol Square for 25 years.
Money, or a frightful shortage of it, dominated the 2009 legislature even before it convened today at noon.
The troubled budget will influence nearly every facet of this year’s 46-day Assembly session.
The worst recession in decades has confronted lawmakers with the grim chore of cutting even core services such as public education and health care for people at risk that had been held harmless in tough times past.
‘‘It is really hard when you see their plight,” Del. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, said last week after she and four other lawmakers heard four hours of often heartrending testimony from elderly or disabled people for whom state support is a tenuous lifeline.
Last month, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine presented budget amendments to the legislature that embody his fourth round of cuts since the fall of 2007. The most recent — and deepest — round pares $418 million from the state’s already stingy Medicaid support for the aged, disabled and indigent, eliminates nearly 2,000 state jobs and reduces state aid to local public schools by more than $450 million starting with the next school year.
Kaine, who later this month begins moonlighting as President Barack Obama’s new Democratic National Committee chairman, has proposed cushioning the blow to Medicaid with a projected $150 million a year from doubling the 30-cent per-pack tax on cigarettes. But even Democratic allies in the House and Senate see little prospect of its passing in tobacco-friendly Virginia.
‘‘It’s a viable option, but I’m not counting on that to pull us through,’’ said Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania.
The leader of the House’s Democratic minority, Del. Ward Armstrong, won’t support it. Shopkeepers in his Martinsville-area district fear they would lose their cigarette sales to competitors just across the North Carolina line.
‘‘I just think that if I had to vote today I’d vote no, and there’s nothing I can see that’s going to change my mind,’’ Armstrong said Friday.
David Bailey said he hasn’t seen this level of austerity in the 26 years he has lobbied in Richmond. When economic downturns forced fiscal retrenchments before delegates and senators would still encourage those hunting for state funding to seek budget amendments anyway, even if approval was unlikely, he said.
‘‘This year, they’re telling me that this is not the year to do that, that it’s just not going to happen,’’ said Bailey, whose clients include several businesses and volunteer firefighters.
Proposals Kaine has put before the House and Senate budget writers in December reflect the gravity of the fiscal crisis:
•Withdrawing $500 million from the state’s ‘‘rainy day’’ cash reserves;
•Closing some older state prisons and allowing some well-behaved inmates to be released 90 days early to reduce prison crowding;
•No pay raises for state employees;
•Closing the Southwestern Mental Health Institute in Marion and the Commonwealth Center for Adolescents and Children in Staunton;
•15 percent reductions to the base budgets of all state-supported colleges and universities except for community colleges;
•Cutting 1,150 Virginia Department of Transportation jobs within two years.
What happens with the budget bill ripples through nearly all other legislation. The budget bill supersedes other state law. There are, however, other issues this General Assembly will have to address. Some key areas and bills that address them:
Voting
There were deep concerns heading into last year’s election that there were too few polling places and too little time for a record turnout in the presidential election. New bills would: allow people to vote early without citing a reason, as the state’s absentee voting system now requires; end a ban on voters wearing campaign T-shirts, buttons, stickers or hats or other inside polling places; require voters to register by party; clarify rules by which students at Virginia colleges can register and vote in their campus communities; outlaw campaign contributions from foreign nationals.
Constitutional amendments
Allow governors to serve two consecutive terms; retain the unique one-term limit for governors, but extend it from four years to six; give an independent bipartisan commission the job the legislature now has of redrawing congressional and legislative districts in 2011; repeal the constitutional amendment Virginia voters approved in 2006 that banned same-sex marriage; adds the state’s existing guarantee that union membership can’t be a condition for employment to the state Constitution.
Individual rights
Required use of handsfree mobile phones by drivers; a ban on driving while texting; a ban on smoking in Virginia bars and restaurants; increase maximum judgments plaintiffs could collect in medical malpractice lawsuits; require substitution of generic drugs for name-brand prescriptions in claims filed as workers compensation unless doctors demand a brand name and state a medical reason for it.
Moral issues
Required curricula promoting marriage be taught in public school family life education courses; define the moment of fertilization as the instant at which the state Constitution guarantees ‘‘the right to enjoyment of life,’’ effectively ending all abortion.
The deadline for legislators to file bills for the 2009 session is Jan. 23. This year’s session is scheduled to end on Feb. 28.

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