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How To Cut Expenses (Virginia Style)

If you had any money, you have a lot less now. If you didn't--and here's the gratingly unfair part--you'll probably get less going forward anyway. I've been scouring my expenses and generally making everyone in my household miserable about spending any money at all, so I was especially curious to take a close look at how Mr. Tim Kaine has gone about slashing $279 million from the commonwealth of Virginia's budget.

The governor announced last week that he is laying off about 600 state workers, closing some prisons and shortening hours at museums, and slicing six percent off the budget of the state's colleges. It takes 63 pages to lay out exactly how the state will save all that money, and hidden in the details are some examples of spending that it's hard to imagine ever got in the budget in the first place.

(But of course that's true for my budget, too: Did we really ever need Netflix when no one in the house has watched a movie in two months? Why do we still have a landline? And this is a battle that will continue to our deaths, but after 643 conversations about it, I still don't get why anyone needs more than three pairs of shoes.)

Anyway, the governor managed to find $25,000 in cell phone savings in his office alone (and you thought the cell companies were bleeding you dry). But the cuts quickly get much bigger. The state is slicing 5 percent, or $318,000, off its grants to public radio and TV stations. Which means that millions are still flowing to those stations--why? What possible justification is there for government support for public TV in an era when commercial cable channels do a better job of producing most of the kinds of programming seen on public TV, and when public TV has so dumbed down its offerings that any claim it once had on tax dollars has long since vanished?

Over at the state Agriculture Department, it's not clear why it takes an emergency budget cut to achieve this level of honesty, but they're admitting that Virginia's dairy industry is shrinking and that it is therefore possible to eliminate a supervisor and an inspector for a savings of about $125,000. They also zeroed out five positions in the office that regulates charitable gaming--bingo (a savings of $390,000.) I know it brings me great inner peace to know that Virginia had a whole crew of workers assuring that church bingo games were on the up and up. (Your state government actually trains bingo callers--I kid you not.)

Why does it take a crisis to get rid of perks that should never have existed in the first place? The Forestry Department is stripping 140 of its workers of the right to take state-owned cars home with them every day; from now on, those first responders will only be allowed to commute to work in state vehicles during fire season or when wildfires are likely to occur. Savings: $60,000.

Virginia has $7.4 million available each year to help folks who don't have indoor plumbing in their homes; most of that is federal money, but even after the state cuts out $1.6 million of its own contribution, it will still be pumping $2.9 million from state taxpayers into this effort. If there are really that many people without indoor plumbing, this is a fine public objective, but how widespread is that problem? Sounds like a fertile field for an enterprising reporter. (See budget cuts, news industry.)

In education, I'm sorry to see the Civics Education Commission eliminated (savings: $81,000.) I can't vouch for the efficacy of their work, but it was nice to think that at least someone was trying to do something about the woeful lack of teaching about our system of government and politics in too many schools. But the governor really socked it to the state's colleges, forcing them to chop out between five and seven percent of their budgets, even as the same schools face parents and students who are begging for relief from steep annual tuition hikes. Already reeling from huge increases in their energy bills and losses in their investments and potential donations, colleges and universities nonetheless are being held up for a whopping grand total of $80 million in cuts, almost 30 percent of the Kaine cut package.

In a government jam-packed with unnecessary programs and foolhardy supports for businesses that can't seem to make it on their own, the state chooses instead to take out its budget woes on children, who, of course, can't vote. So despite all the rhetoric about how schools still care about teaching kids how to learn and how to love learning, the grim focus on rote basics continues apace, as Virginia eliminates its grants for art education for public schools (savings: $90,000), savages arts organizations with an 85 percent cut in second-quarter grant awards (savings: $604,000), and eliminates financial assistance for programming by local arts coalitions (savings: $114,000.)

The decision to put the brunt of the cuts on education extends to basic scientific research, the kind of work that is essential to positioning this country to compete in a world economy where our only long-term advantage is our knowledge, intellectual exploration and our embrace of innovation. Virginia is cutting 10 percent out of its Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, which was created to move Southside Virginia from a reliance on tobacco farming to an information-based economy (savings: $624,000), and is rolling back the experiments conducted by Jefferson Science Associates, a public-private partnership that pushes the frontiers of nuclear physics and works with Virginia's top universities on the Free Electron Laser, based in Newport News, which could help develop new ways of manufacturing recyclable packaging and new lines of products in nano- and microtechnologies (savings: $225,000).

In the how-soon-they-forget category, the budget cuts slash $12.4 million from the state's aid to local Community Service Boards, the very same mental health providers that every single study following the Virginia Tech shootings said desperately needed more resources. It was just last December that Gov. Kaine announced he would seek to add 40 new clinicians to those same Community Service Boards, which he called one of "the state's most critical funding commitments." (In 2005, before the Virginia Tech shootings, community service boards saw 115,000 mentally ill people statewide, at a cost of $127 million.)

There are hundreds of little cuts throughout the state's budget, from eliminating the rabies awareness campaign (savings: $5,500) to reducing the frequency of visitor surveys in state parks from four times a year to annually (savings: $15,000) to cutting back on advertising for state parks (savings: $50,000.) (Overall, parks are getting hit disproportionately hard, with a cut of about 12 percent.) Who could object to cutting the washing of state troopers' patrol cars from once a month to once a quarter (savings: $100,000)?

Sprinkled throughout the budget are cuts that will make a real difference: to save $781,000, the state will stop giving incentive payments to new doctors who commit to spending two years in underserved rural and impoverished communities. And to save $132,000, the Better Beginnings program that pays outside groups to promote teenage pregnancy prevention will be eliminated. For $202,000 in savings, does it really make sense to close Camp New Hope, a juvenile justice program in a national forest near Natural Bridge that was built entirely by inmates and staffers in 1972 and that is used to foster achievement and development among juvenile offenders? (For that matter, is juvenile justice the right area in which to make a 10 percent cut from the available general fund spending?)

Many of the cuts in corrections seem smart--for example, closing underused detention facilities. Others may come back to bite us all in the form of higher crime: By cutting back on the number of counselors at every correctional center and reducing funding for substance abuse treatment (total savings: $464,000), the state makes it more likely that addicts and disturbed inmates will return to crime on their next visit to the outside world.

Coming up today at noon on Raw Fisher Radio: A discussion of Maryland's slots referendum with opposing views from Montgomery County, today at noon at

By Marc Fisher |  October 14, 2008; 8:34 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

It has to be cheaper to get rid of the ABC stores for liquor sales and allow privately owned and run liquor stores!

Also raise the cost for out state college students at schools like UVA and Bill & mary significantly.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 14, 2008 10:05 AM

(Re. the elimination of sewer projects) There still is straight-piping in parts of Virginia - where folks have hooked up pipes from their bathrooms/kitchens/etc. and the household waste goes straight from the house outside, often into a nearby creek to contaminate the water table. Then the state has to pay to run public water to these areas cause the well water is not potable. It costs more in the long run to ignore the problem, not to mention the health impacts to the people/kids that drink contaminated water. Its hard to imagine this is going on in Virginia, but I've seen it in the poor coastal areas, the NC/VA border Southside area, and in Appalachia Virginia. In my opinion, provision of basic public infrastructure is one of the primary responsibilities of the state and despite these hard fiscal times, that responsibility shouldn't be ignored.

Posted by: Theo3 | October 14, 2008 10:22 AM

A note about higher education spending, budgets and tuition - higher education salaries are the big problem here. Across the board, those salaries (and not just for teachers, but for huge administrative staffs) generally run 10 to 20 percent higher than those of similar jobs outside of education. They give the excuse that they have to pay that much to retain the best "minds", however no one calls them on why they need the best minds in administrative positions. When the state cuts funding to the schools, they don't take it out of salaries, they add it to the tuition they charge our kids.

Posted by: jen | October 14, 2008 10:27 AM

If you want to see the actual sorry state of publc education in Virginia visit a school. Try to understand that Virginia pays teachers so little that many schools have to recruit from out of state from Penn, NY, NJ to fill positions. Those states require 3 years before the union will accept them. Why does the education system continue with the myth that we need athletics which, other than football, invole less than 100 kids but short change the other students where the arts-sciences are cut to the bone. And you wonder why your children cannot read or write?

Posted by: kblit | October 14, 2008 11:48 AM

This bloated budget, it should be noted, is the work of the same Mark Warner whom the Post editorial page just endorsed. He misrepresented the extent of Virginia's budget problems back then and prevailed upon the Legislature to pass a vast tax increase that far outstripped the state's needs. That excess money of course got spent on anything and everything, and that's where the state is today.

Posted by: Tom T. | October 14, 2008 12:13 PM

This is a nice summary and all, but it would have been nice to see your input on what additional programs should have been cut in lieu of the ones you think should have been kept. It sounds like Kaine overall is doing a good job of getting rid of waste, while having to make some tough decisions as well.

Interesting idea posted about the ABC stores. I can't imagine the state makes any money off of that, so why not privatize it?

Posted by: EMB | October 14, 2008 12:45 PM

To the first poster, out of state students already pay a disporportionately large share of costs at W&M. (Compare out-of-state tuition and fees to in-state tuition + the states cash payment per student -- out of state is higher.) If the tuition is raised any more it will cease to be a good deal relative to other peer institutions like Wake Forest and Georgetown, and I do not believe that would be good for the school.

I think W&M, in the face of these newest budget cuts, has been forced to finally consider the option of privatization. I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, we have to put up with a huge number of restraints in return for a very small (and shrinking) portion of our budget. If the school could afford to pay good professors more, charge students who can afford it more tuition, wasn't under constant pressure to change its character by increasing the size of the student body, and wasn't forced to accept in-state students of lower quality, it would certainly be ranked much higher than it is. On the other hand, our relatively low tuition leads to a great deal more socio-economic diversity than you typically see at top-tier schools. I think the reflex from out of state students is usually in favor of privatization, because we had to work harder to get in and then once we're here pay an outsize proportion of costs. But i think that privatization would considerably change the character of the school and that's something that needs to be taken into account.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 14, 2008 1:19 PM

Agree with EMB, it's fun to pan cuts that have been made, but like a lot of discussions in politics, it fails to say where cuts should be made, that is where the money should come from.

The hard truth is that recessions are sometimes useful to clean out a lot of the fuzzy logic of government

Posted by: jhtlag | October 14, 2008 1:41 PM

Cutting budgets gets one no friends, but Mark's list seems like Kaine made a sincere effort to spread the pain fairly.

I note some are trying to tie Virginia's "bloated budget" to Mark Warner. It should be noted that this budget was enacted by a Republican controlled House of Delegates and a Democrat controlled State Senate. Seems that, unlike the federal budget, everybody acted like adults when they put it together, and Kaine is making a prudent effort in spreading and minimizing the pain.

Posted by: John | October 14, 2008 1:41 PM

It wasn't so long ago that Virginia was sitting on a $1 billion surplus shortly after Gov. Mark Warner's $1 billion tax increase.

What happened to the money...?

Let's be honest...most of these "cuts" amounts to is chump change adding up to $279 million. if Kaine were serious, he'd be probing school districts, VDOT, and a whole host of other areas in addition to policing cell phone usage.

Posted by: John Tant | October 14, 2008 1:46 PM

You have got to be kidding me. I don't like the monopoly either, but ABC is a huge renevue generator for the state, not a drain. If anything, they should be opening them on Sunday to create more revenue!

It has to be cheaper to get rid of the ABC stores for liquor sales and allow privately owned and run liquor stores!

Posted by: Anonymous | October 14, 2008 2:40 PM

Are you serious? You really can't imagine it? Do you think that's a charity they're running there? Check out the latest annual report.

And if they did get out of selling alcohol game, they would still be left with all of the administration and enforcement expenses without any revenue to offset it, not to mention the job losses.

ABC and the lottery about the only 2 things that make money in Virginia.

Keep them!

Interesting idea posted about the ABC stores. I can't imagine the state makes any money off of that, so why not privatize it?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 14, 2008 3:00 PM

The Governor might want to check out how some of the agencies are spending its money. Try the VDVS (Virginia Department of Veterans Services.) See how the Commissioner has wasted so much money (turbovet, unneeded employees (friends).....Please check it out Governor Kaine.....

Posted by: Roger Sullivan | October 15, 2008 7:10 AM

In response to Theo3: it's not that surprising to me that this sort of thing is still common. I'm originally from a county bordering NC, and my grandmother's house's kitchen sink was straight-piped (the runoff area in the backyard always smelled FOUL), and I knew a guy who had running water for one sink but still used an outhouse for a toilet. And the sad thing is that didn't really even seem all that out of place for the area - the straight-piping in particular seemed like a completely normal thing. It always stuck me odd that the house had a septic tank for all other wastewater, but the kitchen sink never got connected to it.

Posted by: Brother B | October 15, 2008 9:36 AM

You forgot to mention the state subsidies for road construction which provide corporate welfare to automobile companies, both foreign and domestic.

Posted by: David | October 15, 2008 10:08 AM

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