Virginia Se­nate re­jects bud­get, sets up im­passe

De­lay could af­fect core ser­vices

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY DAVID SHERFINSKI

RICH­MOND | Se­nate Democrats on Wed­nes­day blocked the House ver­sion of Virginia’s two-year spend­ing plan, cit­ing in­ad­e­quate fund­ing for core ser­vices such as public ed­u­ca­tion and health care and a dis­re­gard on the part of Repub­li­cans for the 20 votes they have in an evenly split cham­ber.

The 20-19 bud­get vote, which fell along party lines, was one short of the 21 votes needed for pas­sage. The vote sets up a sit­u­a­tion un­prece­dented in mod­ern Virginia his­tory, throws the prospects of a sched­uled March 10 ad­journ­ment into flux and por­tends the even­tual prospect of a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down if an agree­ment isn’t reached by July 1.

“By far, the most im­por­tant thing we’ll do dur­ing this ses­sion of the Gen­eral Assem­bly is adopt a bud­get,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Re­pub­li­can. “And if we fail to do that, the re­spon­si­bil­ity will set squarely on the shoul­ders of the 20 Democrats in the Virginia state Se­nate. And make no mis­take about it, the peo­ple of Virginia will hold them ac­count­able.”

While it has been gen­er­ally agreed that Mr. Bolling can’t cast tie-break­ing votes on the bud­get, Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fair­fax Demo­crat, did not vote, say­ing he did not want to test the premise.

Lo­cal­i­ties, schools and public safety of­fi­cials are all de­pen­dent on fund­ing from the state, and many are in the process of craft­ing their own bud­gets. The Virginia As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice, the Virginia As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mon­wealth’s At­tor­neys, and the Virginia Sher­iffs’ As­so­ci­a­tion have penned let­ters to law­mak­ers in re­cent days urg­ing them to avoid an im­passe.

“Even a mi­nor de­lay in ap­proval of a bud­get will se­verely im­pact our abil­ity to plan for the com­ing months,” wrote David N. Grimes, pres­i­dent of the Virginia As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mon­wealth’s At­tor­neys. “Any de­lay in ac­tual fund­ing could se­verely limit our abil­ity to per­form our core func­tions in­ves­ti­gat­ing and prose­cut­ing crime and serv­ing crime vic­tims.”

Pol­icy or pol­i­tics?

Democrats say they can­not vote for a bud­get that, for ex­am­ple, funds K-12 ed­u­ca­tion be­low 2007 lev­els, bumps 4,500 se­nior cit­i­zens off Med­i­caid cov­er­age, and pro­vides up to $25 mil­lion a year in tax cred­its for cor­po­ra­tions to pro­vide schol­ar­ships for low-in­come chil­dren to at­tend pri­vate school.

“When­ever they de­cide that they can­not run the gov­ern­ment with­out us, and they de­cide they want to talk to us, that’s when the ne­go­ti­a­tions will be­gin,” said cau­cus Chair­man A. Don­ald Mceachin, Hen­rico Demo­crat.

Democrats are still sore over the first day of the ses­sion, when Mr. Bolling used his tie-break­ing au­thor­ity to help Repub­li­cans or­ga­nize the body as a work­ing ma­jor­ity de­spite a 20-20 split in the cham­ber, which in­cluded GOP ma­jori­ties on all but one of the Se­nate’s stand­ing com­mit­tees.

Mr. Saslaw said no new ground was bro­ken Wed­nes­day, since Repub­li­cans voted in lock step against the bud­get in 2008 when Democrats were in con­trol of the cham­ber. Sub­stan­tive pol­icy is­sues would have to be ad­dressed in any so­lu­tion, he said, but equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion on com­mit­tees “would help.”

That’s a non­starter for the GOP, said Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Thomas K. Nor­ment Jr., James City Re­pub­li­can.

“Make no mis­take about it — the Se­nate Repub­li­cans are not go­ing to be ex­torted by hav­ing the bud­get held in hostage over po­lit­i­cal shenani­gans and bruised po­lit­i­cal egos,” Mr. Nor­ment said. “I am em­bar­rassed for them. If this is not Wash­ing­to­nian be­hav­ior, I have never seen it.”

Still, Sen. Phillip P. Puck­ett, Rus­sell Demo­crat, ad­vised any­one say­ing that Wed­nes­day’s vote was only about pol­i­tics to cast their gaze to the be­gin­ning of the ses­sion, when Repub­li­cans re­jected a power-shar­ing pro­posal from Democrats.

“Any­one that can count knows that we de­serve re­spect [and] con­sid­er­a­tion for the 20 votes that we have in the Se­nate,” he said. “And we are ask­ing for that — no more, and no less.”

Un­charted wa­ters

The Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee on Tues­day lay­ered its own amend­ments over the House ver­sion of the twoyear, $85 bil­lion bud­get — stan­dard prac­tice as both ver­sions ad­vance through their re­spec­tive houses. But Wed­nes­day was the last day for each cham­ber to act on the bud­get bills of the other, so the im­passe leaves the assem­bly in un­charted ter­ri­tory, said Fi­nance Sec­re­tary Richard D. Brown.

“In essence, we’re in reg­u­lar ses­sion with no real ve­hi­cle . . . for a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to con­sider,” he said.

The sit­u­a­tion is un­prece­dented. Bud­get stand­offs took place in 2001, 2004 and 2006, but Gov. James S. Gil­more III ended up amend­ing a twoyear bud­get al­ready in place in 2001. And there had been a bud­get con­fer­ence be­tween the two bod­ies to work with in 2004 and 2006.

As it stands, each cham­ber, by unan­i­mous con­sent, can rein­tro­duce a bud­get bill, and Gov. Bob Mcdon­nell can send down a bud­get at any point. The assem­bly could also ad­journ and re­turn to ad­dress it in a spe­cial ses­sion.

In 2006, the House and Se­nate, in a spat over trans­porta­tion fund­ing, failed to ap­prove a bud­get be­fore the Gen­eral Assem­bly ad­journed. Gov. Tim Kaine said he had the au­thor­ity to en­act a spend­ing plan if the leg­is­la­ture did not. But Mr. Mcdon­nell, then the state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, con­cluded in an of­fi­cial opin­ion that the state Con­sti­tu­tion des­ig­nates that au­thor­ity to the Gen­eral Assem­bly.

“It might be pre­ma­ture to get into that in the ab­sence of see­ing ex­actly what they want to do in the next few weeks,” said Mr. Brown.

Mr. Mcdon­nell said he has talked with many mem­bers of the Se­nate Demo­cratic cau­cus, but that they may have a tough sell to the peo­ple of Virginia on their hands.

“There are many over there that truly are states­men, re­ally do want to see Virginia be put first, and I think that they don’t want to be in the em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing to look their con­stituents in the eye and [say], ‘I killed the Se­nate bud­get be­cause I wanted to have more power and bet­ter com­mit­tees,’ ” he said. “That’s not a good ar­gu­ment. That’s not the way peo­ple on ei­ther side do things around here.”


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