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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, March 13, 2006

Assembly adjourns, will return; A1

Special session set for March 27
By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

The Virginia General Assembly adjourned Saturday without finishing its work on a two-year state budget, leading Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to call lawmakers back to Richmond for a special session on March 27.

House and Senate leaders had been going back and forth for months over a two-year spending plan for the state, but neither side was willing to give ground on the key item of the session — transportation.

Senate leaders proposed more than $1 billion per year in tax hikes to pay for transportation improvements, while the House backed a $2 billion, four-year plan that spends existing revenue and floats bonds to pay for major projects in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

The House plan also contains an extra $50 million for car-tax relief.

There was plenty of finger-pointing to go around when the final gavel fell.

“We would have a budget today if Governor Kaine had kept the commitment made by candidate Kaine not to raise taxes,” House Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, said after the session.

“Remember, it was just five days before the election that he said ‘we’re going to have to live within our means,’” Howell said.

“We would have a budget today if the Senate ended its recently adopted practice of intertwining tax increases into its budget bill.”

Including tax hikes in the budget bill, rather than raising them via separate action, is a novel idea and quite likely unconstitutional, he added.

Senate leaders responded that they did pass the tax hikes, while the House of Delegates was content to let them die in committee.

Howell said House negotiators would meet with Senate leaders anytime before the session. The two sides are too close on almost every area except transportation spending to justify not making a deal.

But almost the entire Senate stood together at a press conference on Thursday and decried the entire philosophy of the House budget.

The bottom lines for schools, police, social services and higher education may be close, but the underlying strategies that get them there aren’t compatible at all — higher taxes versus bonded debt and some spending cuts.

House Minority Leader Brian Moran, D-Alexandria, said the House plan leaves core services shortchanged to avoid transportation tax hikes.

“The House Republicans’ plan could not meet the transportation needs without cuts in other core areas and increased debt,” he said.

He also accused the House of playing “mean-spirited, divisive games — such as attacking [Secretary of the Commonwealth nominee] Daniel LeBlanc — instead of addressing the business of the people.”

The bitter split between the House and Senate was no more evident than when the two chambers attempted to come up with a joint resolution that would have allowed them, not Kaine, to set the terms of a special session.

Unlike regular sessions, special sessions are restricted to the subject matter in the proclamation that initiates them. While the governor can call one at any time, the General Assembly can compel him to call one on their terms with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Centreville, wanted to add “transportation” to the call resolution in the Senate.

If the Senate is to come back and deal with the budget and the transportation plans deeply interwoven in them, legislators need some leeway to talk about non-monetary transportation issues.

But key Senate leaders vehemently opposed the idea, saying it would be all but impossible to define a “transportation bill.”
Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, was far more blunt.

“Unless you want to spend the summer here in this building dealing with transportation bills of every description, I would suggest you reject the amendments at hand,” he said.

Kaine beat both chambers to the punch and issued his own call for a special session to include transportation before the two chambers could agree on their own resolutions.