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Hard times made budget center of attention

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The state’s perilous, ebbing finances and the pared-down budget lawmakers hope it can fund over the next 16 months dominated the 2009 General Assembly.
But legislators did find time to wean the state from its 400-year-old addiction to tobacco, passing historic curbs on smoking.
Amendments to the state budget cut state jobs and pay raises for those not laid off, slashed funding imperatives once as untouchable as public schools and public safety, and reduced money for transportation and other public works projects.
At stake were the state’s well-regarded public schools and universities, the ability to house a growing prison population and how far the state stretches the thin blue line of law enforcement.
The most urgent needs were the state’s most vulnerable people: the disabled, the poor and working-class families who rely on Medicaid and state support.
If not for $1.2 billion in federal largesse, reconciling a $3.7 billion revenue shortfall born of the sharpest drop in state revenue ever recorded, the situation would have been catastrophic, not just painful.
With the help of the federal stimulus package, for instance, lawmakers not only avoided proposed cuts in waivers for the mentally disabled that permit home-based treatment instead of commitment to a state hospital, the program was expanded by 400 slots.
Yet even with the federal money, public schools, higher education and state agencies will endure cuts.
As for what’s left, the House and Senate passed bills that:
—Restrict smoking in restaurants and bars
—Ban people from texting while driving
—Allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry their firearms into bars as long as they don’t drink alcohol
—Expand the death penalty to include people who deliberately kill fire marshals or auxiliary police officers performing their official duties and those who help with a murder but don’t do the actual killing
—Prohibit online access to a statewide database of concealed weapons permit holders
—Allow voters to wear T-shirts, buttons and other political apparel to the polls and clarify residency requirements for voter registration
Some of those — especially the death penalty expansion and concealed guns in bars bills — may get a veto or amendments by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who has 30 days to decide what steps he will take.
Kaine lost his bid to double the 30 cents-per-pack state cigarette tax, something he envisioned as a long-term source of revenue, an estimated $150 million annually, to compensate Medicaid for the ailments smoking causes.
The bill never made it to the floor in either the House or the Senate.
But Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, pocketed one of his proudest and most improbable legislative victories in a compromise with Republican House Speaker William J. Howell on sharp curbs on smoking in restaurants and bars.
Kaine had pushed for years to ban restaurant smoking altogether to spare restaurant workers ill health effects of inhaling secondhand smoke. And just as often, legislative Republicans defeated the legislation.
The compromise compels restaurants that intend to allow smoking to confine it to closed, separately ventilated rooms or open-air decks or patios outside. Private clubs are exempt.
Kaine intends to sign the bill, and it takes effect Dec. 1.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris, which operates the world’s largest cigarette factory a few miles from the Capitol, and the powerful tobacco lobby opposed both bills.

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Hard times made budget center of attention

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The state’s perilous, ebbing finances and the pared-down budget lawmakers hope it can fund over the next 16 months dominated the 2009 General Assembly.
But legislators did find time to wean the state from its 400-year-old addiction to tobacco, passing historic curbs on smoking.
Amendments to the state budget cut state jobs and pay raises for those not laid off, slashed funding imperatives once as untouchable as public schools and public safety, and reduced money for transportation and other public works projects.
At stake were the state’s well-regarded public schools and universities, the ability to house a growing prison population and how far the state stretches the thin blue line of law enforcement.
The most urgent needs were the state’s most vulnerable people: the disabled, the poor and working-class families who rely on Medicaid and state support.
If not for $1.2 billion in federal largesse, reconciling a $3.7 billion revenue shortfall born of the sharpest drop in state revenue ever recorded, the situation would have been catastrophic, not just painful.
With the help of the federal stimulus package, for instance, lawmakers not only avoided proposed cuts in waivers for the mentally disabled that permit home-based treatment instead of commitment to a state hospital, the program was expanded by 400 slots.
Yet even with the federal money, public schools, higher education and state agencies will endure cuts.
As for what’s left, the House and Senate passed bills that:
—Restrict smoking in restaurants and bars
—Ban people from texting while driving
—Allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry their firearms into bars as long as they don’t drink alcohol
—Expand the death penalty to include people who deliberately kill fire marshals or auxiliary police officers performing their official duties and those who help with a murder but don’t do the actual killing
—Prohibit online access to a statewide database of concealed weapons permit holders
—Allow voters to wear T-shirts, buttons and other political apparel to the polls and clarify residency requirements for voter registration
Some of those — especially the death penalty expansion and concealed guns in bars bills — may get a veto or amendments by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who has 30 days to decide what steps he will take.
Kaine lost his bid to double the 30 cents-per-pack state cigarette tax, something he envisioned as a long-term source of revenue, an estimated $150 million annually, to compensate Medicaid for the ailments smoking causes.
The bill never made it to the floor in either the House or the Senate.
But Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, pocketed one of his proudest and most improbable legislative victories in a compromise with Republican House Speaker William J. Howell on sharp curbs on smoking in restaurants and bars.
Kaine had pushed for years to ban restaurant smoking altogether to spare restaurant workers ill health effects of inhaling secondhand smoke. And just as often, legislative Republicans defeated the legislation.
The compromise compels restaurants that intend to allow smoking to confine it to closed, separately ventilated rooms or open-air decks or patios outside. Private clubs are exempt.
Kaine intends to sign the bill, and it takes effect Dec. 1.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris, which operates the world’s largest cigarette factory a few miles from the Capitol, and the powerful tobacco lobby opposed both bills.

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