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Business leaders hear GA debrief

As hard as it might have been to broker an agreement on a state budget this year, Delegate S. Chris Jones (R-76th) is worried that the situation could be even tougher in coming years if the economy continues to founder.

Federal deficits and the sluggish economy — along with the continued existence of some non-essential and underperforming state programs — are among Jones’ top concerns following the close of the Virginia General Assembly’s 2010 session, he told a gathering of business and government leaders on Thursday.

“I wanted a little more structural change,” he said, noting that the protection some unnecessary quasi-governmental agencies and programs received this year will mean they are in a position to get more state tax money when the economy improves.

His comments came during a morning debrief session with the Board of Directors for the Suffolk Division of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Members and guests listened as Jones discussed the highlights of the session, which was marked by a budget battle resulting from a historic drop in tax revenues.

During his 25 years in office, he said, the state’s fiscal outlook had never been as bleak. In fact, he added, the $6-billion budget deficit that faced lawmakers when they went into their session was five times larger than the state ever had faced.

The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates finally agreed on a compromise budget on Sunday, a day after the Assembly’s session was to have ended. Jones, who had been appointed this year as Hampton Roads’ only representative on the budget reconciliation committee, said that at one point on Sunday it looked as if the committee might need another week to reach an agreement on the budget.

Jones said that frequent discussions with Suffolk School Superintendent Milton Liverman had helped him gain perspective on the need to protect education funding to the greatest extent possible.

“K-12 is tremendously important to me. Our design of the budget was to try to get as much money into the classroom as we could,” he said.

Suffolk could have lost as much as $14 million in state educational funding, based on budget proposals that were being considered in Richmond, Liverman said following Thursday’s meeting. In the end, the city’s public school system will receive about $2 million less from the commonwealth than it did last year, assuming that Gov. Bob McDonnell signs off on the legislators’ compromise.

But Jones acknowledged that state legislators’ efforts to fund education and other programs are not the end of the story, especially in light of the current economic situation.

“I’m not nave enough to think there’s not going to be some more pain because of the local effects of the economy,” he said.

The stagnant economy and this year’s resulting budget quandary eclipsed another perennial topic of legislative debate — transportation.

Several of those attending Thursday’s meeting were curious about the General Assembly’s plans for tackling the region’s issues of traffic, public transportation and highway maintenance.

Jones said it is possible that legislators would be called back for a special session to deal with the problems — but he doesn’t believe that should happen immediately.

“I don’t know that now is the right time to do it,” he said, adding that waiting 12 to 18 months would allow Gov. McDonnell some time to institute some government reforms that could help smooth the way for transportation funding. The extra time also would help Virginia ease away from its legal debt ceiling, which it will approach as a result of cutting $6 billion from the general fund.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got to have an increase in partnerships for transportation,” he said.