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

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

No Va. budget yet, legislators will try again: B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Two days of meetings on the state budget went nowhere, and now General Assembly members are back home, with an eye toward trying again next week.

Both houses had returned in anticipation of formalizing their budget standoff again by passing their own budgets, defeating their counterparts’ plans and asking for a conference committee.

That didn’t happen, as the Senate convened committees to consider regional road issues and failed to act on the House version of the budget.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, shook his head when asked about the lack of progress in the Senate, but the GOP majority said they’re not moving an inch in their no-tax-hikes position.

“Most people are telling them, they’re telling me, hold the line on taxes, especially with a multibillion-dollar budget surplus,” said House Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, at a spirited press conference after the body adjourned.

More than 35 members of the caucus packed into a small meeting room in the temporary capitol to express their displeasure with the Senate’s continued insistence on including tax hikes for transportation in its budget bill.

Senators included about $1 billion per year in new taxes for transportation before the regular session adjourned in March. Those hikes didn’t pass the House, though, and the chambers have been deadlocked ever since.

Republican delegates did offer a compromise plan last week — sent to the Senate on Tuesday — that sets aside $1 billion over two years for transportation and calls for further talks on how to spend it and how to pay for it.

“The good people of Virginia aren’t bargaining chips,” Howell said. “They deserve far more from their elected representatives than to be pawns in a game not of their own making.”

Down the hall in the Senate, the majority bloc was decidedly less solid. Fractures in the once-united front were obvious in two major committee meetings on regional transportation plans.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, brought forward a proposal to raise the sales tax in Northern Virginia to 5.5 percent and give the additional money to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for projects.

But the committee rolled the bill into a similar bill proposal by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, R-Vienna, that would raise a laundry list of regional taxes and fees to accomplish much of the same. Davis said she had been talking to legislators in the House about what might make it through the lower chamber, and a sales tax wasn’t on the list.

Saslaw was unmoved, insisting that his plan was the best way to spread out the regional pain of a tax hike, hitting shoppers from Maryland and Washington.

“The fact that the House doesn’t like it bothers me not one whit,” he said. But Davis said the voters have already given their opinion on a sales tax hike.

“We had a referendum on the sales tax in Northern Virginia,” she said. “It failed.”

Davis’ plan, along with a unified proposal from members of the Hampton Roads delegation, won committee approval despite objections that approving regional plans weakened the Senate’s bargaining position.

Regional plans “play right into the hands of the House of Delegates,” said Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania. If some members see regions with tools to fix their own problems, delegates will permanently walk away from any statewide transportation plan.

Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr., R-Winchester, said before a Senate Finance Committee meeting that he would offer amendments to the bills to prevent the “Balkanization” of Virginia by making both plans inoperative unless legislators enacted a statewide plan.

But Potts never got the chance. After a delay of almost an hour, committee chairman, Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, arrived and told members that the bills would be forwarded to the committee’s transportation panel for further consideration.

That was the last straw for the House.

“I am absolutely appalled by the cavalier attitude that the little Napoleons [in the Senate] are foisting on the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean, chairman of the House Appropriations committee at the GOP press conference. “They seem hellbent on closing down the government, and I find that disgraceful.”

Legislators will return next week to continue their work immediately after their Wednesday veto override session.