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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, March 27, 2006

Special Session: Legislators start slow; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Legislators came back to Capitol Square to take another stab at a state budget and transportation plan on Monday.

They didn’t get off to a fast start.

After early clashes over how to proceed, the Senate decided to move ahead with business today, but the House of Delegates has called it quits until negotiators reach a deal.

“The conferees are apparently no closer than they were a few days ago,” Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said after Monday’s session.

“The budget negotiations are in their hands. Until they get a little closer, there’s no real reason for us to stay here,” he said. Neither body can leave for more than three days without the other’s consent.

House leaders will be on hand Thursday for a “pro-forma” session, but will take no action.

Both the Senate and House of Delegates clashed — with each other and internally — over how to go about the special session and get to a point where budget negotiators can begin their work anew.

At the heart of the split are differing transportation plans incorporated into both spending plans.

Senators want to spend $1 billion each year from new or higher taxes on gasoline, cars and other items, while the House wants to spend $2 billion over four years from the state’s $1 billion-plus surplus, new charges for bad drivers and debt funds for road projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

But a resolution isn’t anywhere on the horizon.

“I don’t think [the debate is] nearly at a boil,” said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R- Winchester.

Senators want to come back before the April “veto override” session, in which the legislators either override or uphold vetoes and amendments by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Before legislators can come back, they have to have a deal.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, told his colleagues that the Senate negotiators are “prepared to work as long as it takes to find another answer.”

Senators are “trying to understand [the House’s] point of view,” he said. “Where there is dialogue, there is hope of a solution.”

But Chichester indicated he wasn’t looking to back down anytime soon.

The House budget and its debt funds for its two major urban centers only throws a “two-year bone to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads,” Chichester said. New cash flows have to be found.

“Make no mistake about it, if the answer is short-term gratification, it will in fact be a short term,” he said. “By 2010, we will be in the throes of another recession, and we’ll be draining dollars from” core services to “keep transportation afloat.”

Even with the tough talk from Chichester, fellow Finance Committee member Potts sounded a conciliatory note.

“They’re men and women of good will over there, they’re trying to do the right thing for Virginia, too,” he said.

“What this is all about is they hate the word tax,” he said. “Who doesn’t? You’ve heard me say a dozen times, I hate taxes, but I love Virginia more.

The House plan has validity — but not as a long-term solution to the state’s highway issues, the senator said.

“What’s got to happen here is let the cold light of dawn be absorbed by our good friends in the House and let them see that there’s no magic bullet here,” Potts said.

The GOP majority in the House isn’t going to move on matters of taxes, Gilbert said.

“I get the sense that the House is dead serious this time,” he said. “In a time of windfall budget surpluses, it’s not the time to be raising taxes on working families.”