March 7, 2006
By MATTHEW McCORMICK
Bulletin Staff Writer
Martinsville-Henry County's journey from an industrial area to a college town took a giant step on Monday.
House amendments to the Senate's New College Institute enabling legislation, SB40, were unanimously approved by the Senate on Monday, sending the bill to the governor's desk for signature.
And given Gov. Tim Kaine's outspoken backing of the institute, New College supporters say that is a pretty comfortable place to be.
"I expect he will gladly sign it," said Del. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham.
The Senate also approved amendments to the House version of the bill, HB517, to conform it to its own legislation. It will be sent back to the House for final approval before making its way to Kaine's office.
The governor must sign just one of the bills for the New College to be created.
But even with that signature, legislators were quick to point out that the fight for the New College is far from over.
"We have the bill passed but the key thing now is the funding," said Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville. "What we've done now is establish the college. But if we establish it and then don't have the money, there's nowhere to go."
And while the New College so far has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, the question of funding could cast it into the middle of a hotly contested transportation debate largely split along party lines.
"The college is in no different a situation than law enforcement, public education, the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles)," said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Collinsville. "Every aspect of government is tied up in transportation."
Democrats say that the Republican-backed House transportation plan, which seeks to raise funds for transportation projects without raising taxes, could make the New College vulnerable because by cutting funding for many programs, including higher education, it reduces the amount of money available for existing institutions.
"The more the state lives up to its obligation to fully fund higher education, the more likely that the New College will be funded to meet its needs," said state Sen. Roscoe Reynolds.
But House Republicans pointed out that their plan, which included $2.4 million for the college, was more generous toward the institute than the plan endorsed by the Senate. That spending plan raised several transportation-related taxes but allocated just $1.4 million for the college.
"The House of Delegates came up with a conservative and prudent package that spends less new money and comes up with more for the New College," said Hurt.
Both aisles of Southside's political contingent, however, said they hoped the bipartisan support of the New College would continue.
"I certainly hope the New College doesn't get caught up in the transportation debate," said Hurt.
But if it does, Armstrong said he was confident that a sympathetic governor would be ready to come to Southside's aid.
"At the end of the day, the governor has a line-item veto," he said. The New College "is very important to him and his administration and he's not going to let the funding for this college evaporate. That's not an option with Gov. Kaine."
Whatever happens during the budget process, though, Republicans and Democrats alike celebrated Monday's vote on the New College Institute as an important step forward for a proposal that has been several years in the making.
"It was never a sure thing," said Hurt. "There were a whole lot of questions about whether or not there would be enough political support to get it off the ground."
"Even though the money we're appropriating" for the college is up in the air, added Armstrong, "without enabling the college, there would be nothing to appropriate to."
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