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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

‘Interim’ budget proposal may get ball rolling in Richmond; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The House of Delegates offered a truce of sorts Monday in the ongoing Virginia state budget standoff, but some key senators were less than impressed by the effort.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 22-0 on Monday to move forward a budget that sets aside a $1.03 billion, two-year “Transportation Reserve Fund” paid for out of the general fund.

Delegates say they’re willing to pass a budget that includes the money, then come back later and talk about how to spend it — or come up with alternative sources.

That’s the best way to move the debate about transportation forward, said Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg.

“I think [separating transportation from the budget] is an eminently reasonable approach to the problem,” he said. Essentially, delegates have said “‘Here’s an intermediate budget, one that will perfectly well work until everyone decides what we want to do about transportation.’”

Agreeing to the “interim” budget would let talks about transportation go ahead without penalizing local governments who are working on their own spending plans and need to know what’s coming down from Richmond.

"We’re in pretty good agreement on almost everything but transportation," he said. “If we’re pretty close on the rest of them, it would allow local governments to go ahead and make the decisions that they have to make.”

Once the budget is off the table, the House is willing to come back and talk about transportation — not that $1 billion over two years is chump change.

“The details aren’t there, but we’re setting aside the money,” added Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, also a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Everybody agrees that we need to do something good and permanent,” May added. “This puts everything on a viable basis until we can get a more permanent answer.”

One member of the Senate Finance Committee was less than impressed.

“It’s so irresponsible it’s unbelievable,” said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, speaking from Indianapolis. “We’re talking about half a billion in debt alone.”

House legislators free up money for transportation by moving large capital projects for higher education, mental health, law enforcement and state parks to bonded debt, rather than paying cash for them.

“We battled tenaciously to keep our ‘AAA’ bond rating, and they want to go back out and add half a billion in debt,” said Potts, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

It’s more of the same, added fellow Finance Committee member Sen. Frederick M. Quayle, R-Chesapeake, with Potts at the NCAA Tournament.

The House is “still taking the cash that the Senate had put into capital projects out of them,” Quayle said.

“The bottom line, this is just a recycled plan,” Potts said. “It’s basically the same plan that does not address long-term, sustainable funding for transportation.”

Even worse, the plan opens the door for major transit projects but takes away the funding after two years., he said. That’s a recipe for killing projects mid-build.

“It’d be the worst form of irresponsibility,” Potts said, adding that it cuts more than $120 million from education to make room for transportation funding.

“There’s no way that I could support a plan like that,” he said.

May bristled at the charge.

“That’s just not true,” he said. “In all three of the plans, [House, Senate and governor] … all have increased funding for all those areas.”

“It’s just that the House isn’t quite as generous as the Senate version,” May said. “The governor’s is pretty close. It’s not a matter that we’re taking money out, it’s just that we’re not putting as much additional in.”

May drew a business analogy.

“If my employees wanted [a] 10 percent [raise] and I gave them 4 [percent], that’s not a cut,” he said.

But Quayle didn’t close the door on an “interim” budget with further transportation talks.

“I would be interested in what they have in mind,” he said.

Both House and Senate will meet again in full session Monday.