The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Delegates meeting, may vote on budget; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

After two weeks of low-level skirmishing, the fight between the House of Delegates and Senate is showing signs of life again.

Delegates are coming back to Richmond today for an evening session, at which they’re expected to vote on their version of the $74 billion 2006-08 state budget and dispose of the Senate’s latest offering. Senators will join the fray on Wednesday.

The two sides, both led by Republicans, remain at odds over transportation spending. Senators back a budget that contains about $1 billion per year in new taxes devoted to transportation fixes.

Delegates remain adamantly opposed to new taxes, but have offered to set aside $1 billion in the new state budget for roads and mass transit, and to fight about the details later.

Some senators, including Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, have rejected the plan as irresponsible, saying it relies on debt financing of big projects like a new hospital and some higher-education buildings to pay for the $1 billion. They also say they want to see recurring money, not just one-time spending.

Delegates, including Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, counter that the House just wants to move the budget itself forward and fight over transportation later. May said the current House offer doesn’t even preclude new taxes.

The action is due to start late today, when the House takes up the Senate’s latest offering — which includes a 6 cents per gallon motor fuel distribution tax and the new budget — in the House’s version of the 2004-06 “caboose bill.”

Such bills are approved every two years and are designed to tie up loose ends in the state’s current budget, which expires on June 30.

But the modified caboose bill may well die a swift death in the House.

Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, said in a recent interview that the bill has a significant hurdle to clear before it comes up for a vote. If the Senate’s changes to the bill are found to be too far afield from the original, it might never be discussed.

Sherwood wouldn’t say for certain that it would be found to be non-germane and thus unable to be considered. “That’s up to the speaker,” she said.

But the test is simple, she said: does the new bill go beyond the scope of what the old one did?
Republican delegates have come under fire from some quarters lately for not being in Richmond while the legislature is in session. The full House last met on March 27.

GOP leaders have said their caucus decided to leave town until budget negotiators reached some kind of breakthrough.

Calls from some pundits for legislators to return their $130 per day expense checks are misguided, Sherwood said. Legislators aren’t getting paid at all unless the chamber or one of their committees is in session. All but a handful of staffers, imported from permanent home office staff, are off the job for the special session as well.

“We drive down to Richmond … when there is work to be done,” Sherwood said. “There’s no sense in sitting there, particularly there at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Just what would happen if the two chambers don’t come to terms on a budget and have it passed into law in time isn’t clear. Virginia’s constitution makes it clear that the state can’t spend money without having an appropriations act in place, but the state has never been without a budget at the end of a fiscal year.

Two others states — Minnesota in 2005, Tennessee in 2002 — have closed up shop over budget fights. Both sent thousands of state employees home for days, but managed to keep essential employees like prison guards and police on the job in the interim.

That might not be so easy in Virginia, Attorney General Bob McDonnell said Monday, referring to the views of former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.

When the 2004 budget fight went into overtime, Kilgore warned legislators about the consequences of reaching July without a budget.

“It was his opinion that the government cannot in fact continue to operate without this budget being passed,” he said. “We haven’t been asked [for] that opinion again, but I think it is a good and solid opinion. I think all the legislators … know that they’ve got to get the job done and signed” before July 1.