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More Money for Mental Health Services

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State lawmakers now have a brand new budget headache: they must find $30 million in extra money by the end of next week.

It's all in response to a scathing report from the U.S. Justice Department about how Virginia deals with people who have developmental disabilities. A report, issued last week, says Virginia has failed miserably at providing adequate care for people with mental disabilities.

"I think its good to get it out in the open," said state Sen. Edd Houck, D-Spotsylvania, a key budget negotiator. "At least we know where we're going."

The federal report is hardly a surprise to lawmakers. It says Virginia has institutionalized people instead of treating them in the community.

To fix that, and to avoid a federal court battle, legislators need to plow cash into mental health services.

"Both to satisfy DOJ and to do the right thing, we're going to have to do around $30 million on top of what's in the budget currently," said House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R).

The House budget plan includes money set aside for unexpected expenses. This latest discovery certainly would fall in that category.

"Our budget, it's easier to get there," Cox said. "The Senate has spent more money so it's more difficult to get there."

The Senate version of the budget programs excess money into other core services, so budget negotiators will have to come up with a compromise to address mental health.

"There may be some opportunities to go to those areas so we can continue to make improvements in education, public safety and health care," Houck said.

Lawmakers do not expect a budget battle on this issue.

"It's not much of a choice at this point," Cox said. "It's not only the right thing to do, you're going to have to do it."

The General Assembly likely will have to come up with $2 billion for these reforms over the next decade. Lawmakers are scheduled to approve a final compromise on amendments to the state's two-year, $80 billion budget by Feb. 26.