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General Assembly Session Half Over

By Ralph Byers,

director of government relations

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 21 - February 19, 1998

After a slow start due to disputes over power sharing between Republicans and Democrats in the House of Delegates, the 1998 General Assembly has passed the halfway point. As a result of the 1997 House of Delegates elections and special elections held in January, the House is now comprised of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one independent. The Senate has 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats, although it still operates under a power-sharing agreement forged when the division was 20-20.
One result of power sharing in the House is increased complexity of the legislative process. Many committees and subcommittees have expanded their memberships to reflect the division of power; members are serving on more committees and subcommittees; and committees now have co-chairmen. A new Committee on Science and Technology has been formed; it is co-chaired by Virginia Tech alumnus Delegate Joe May (R-Sterling) and Delegate Ken Plum (D-Reston).
Virginia Tech has been much in evidence during the first weeks of the session. President Paul Torgersen has personally called upon more than 40 members of the General Assembly, and has spoken to three regional caucuses that represent almost half of the members of the legislature. On February 2, he spoke to the more than 30 members of the Northern Virginia caucus, detailing Tech's long history of involvement in the region.
He met with the Central Virginia caucus (the Richmond region), discussing the university's leadership in such initiatives of regional interest as the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium. He also met with the Shenandoah caucus to discuss the importance of agricultural research and Cooperative Extension to the region, the most heavily agricultural in the state.
On February 11, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council met in Richmond to discuss progress on the "Virginia First: 2000" report and issues related to funding for higher education. The assembled business leaders heard a presentation on the unified amendment for higher education presented by Executive Vice President Minnis Ridenour. The development of the unified amendment was coordinated by Ridenour and University Budget Director Dwight Shelton, in cooperation with the finance officers of the public colleges and universities.
The theme of the Business Higher Education Council meeting was the importance of higher education to the future of Virginia's economy. Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, the industry's largest trade group, praised Virginia Tech for its work with the ITAA in assessing the nation's information-technology workforce shortages and for such initiatives as the Faculty Development Institute and the Math Emporium. Reports were given on BHEC task forces chaired by Provost Peggy Meszaros and Director of Information Technology Initiatives Anne Moore. After the meeting, BHEC Chairman Til Hazel and Vice Chairman Heywood Fralin (also a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors) called on legislative leaders to stress the importance of increased funding for higher education.
In addition, the Council of Presidents of the state-supported colleges and universities has made presentations to the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees requesting full funding of the unified amendment for higher education. This amendment would require a total of $248 million in operating funds and $159 million in capital outlay for the biennium over the amount recommended in Governor George Allen's budget. Budget amendments submitted by Governor Jim Gilmore would reduce the Allen budget by about $28 million, leaving higher education with slightly more than $100 million for the biennium in increased General Fund operating support.
Despite the efforts of the Business Higher Education Council, the Council of Presidents, and individual presidents, the prospects for increased funding beyond the current recommendations are uncertain. Gilmore has asked the General Assembly not to provide additional funds for higher education until his Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education has finished its work in assessing the needs of higher education. The commission is due to report before the 1999 General Assembly session; as of this writing, its members have not been appointed.
Moreover, the elimination of the personal-property tax on vehicles will require almost $500 million for the biennium: $186 million for the first year, and $307 million for the second year. In the first year of the biennium, taxpayers will be reimbursed for 15 percent of the tax they pay on vehicles up to $20,000 in value. In the second year, this will increase to 30 percent. When the phase-out of the tax is complete in fiscal year 2003, the estimated cost to the General Fund is slightly more than $1 billion. For purposes of comparison, $1 billion is approximately the annual amount of General Fund appropriations currently provided for higher education in Virginia.
On Sunday, Feb. 22, the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee will release their proposals for funding the 1998-2000 biennial budget. The General Assembly is scheduled to finish its work on March 14.