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

Thursday, May 25, 2006

House rejects budget, will try again next week; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Virginia’s budget process is moving forward again, but the clock is ticking.

In a short but contentious floor session Thursday, Republicans and Democrats sparred over transportation before rejecting the Senate’s latest proposed budget 78-12.

The procedural move sets the stage for the budget to head back into a conference committee. Legislators from the House and Senate have agreed to get back to work next week and try to come up with a deal.

Legislators have until June 30 to get a budget signed into law before the state loses its authority to spend money. That would lead to at least a partial government shutdown.

A two-month stalemate was broken Tuesday, when the GOP-led Senate backed down from its demands that more than $1 billion in new taxes for roads be included in this year’s budget bill.

House Republicans have strongly oppose tax hikes, but said they’re willing to discuss transportation — after a budget is passed.

“The Senate has removed a major obstacle to completing our work,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean.

But “in the process of removing one obstacle, taxes, they have in some instances” moved the two sides further apart. Nonetheless, a budget should be done “well before June 30.

“We have differences, but they’re not obstacles,” he said.

But Democrats didn’t let the House GOP’s victory go unchallenged.

House Minority Caucus Chairman Del. Brian Moran, D-Alexandria, questioned Callahan about the $1 billion the House offered to set aside in the budget, in advance of transportation negotiations.

Moran asked where the $1 billion would come from, if not from tax increases.

That’s a matter for transportation talks, Callahan said.

“Perhaps at that time your side could actually introduce some legislation, which we have not seen,” he said.

“There are three pieces of legislation before a committee of this House,” Moran fired back — referring to the Senate’s regional transportation plans on hold before the House Finance Committee — before being silenced on a point of order.

Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the two most car-choked areas of the state, have been left twisting in the wind, said Del. Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth.

Elections in 2007 are closer than anyone cares to think, he said, and the window for meaningful help to those two areas is closing fast. The Senate’s retreat will have dire consequences.

“These two areas of the Old Dominion are the engine of the state. We fund what’s going on in the other areas of the state,” Melvin said.

“Ideology has trumped common sense,” he said. “These roads don’t pop up magically, Mr. Speaker.”

Pouring money into the Virginia Department of Transportation, which was the Senate’s plan, won’t fix anything, shot back Del. Jack Reid, R-Richmond.

“If we gave VDOT $5 billion tomorrow, they couldn’t lay one new foot of concrete for five years,” he said.

First, roads have to be planned. “Then we’re going to get sued, because the people that want the roads want them, but they want them to go through your yard, not theirs,” he said.

“Look at Interstate 81,” he said. “We came up with a plan to widen the highway. Then what happened? We got sued, because a widened highway would threaten the ambiance of the highway system.”

Others in both chambers have been far more conciliatory.

“All the bitterness aside that we’ve experienced to this point, I think we’re all very grateful to the Senate for meeting us this far,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

Backing off embedded tax hikes gives everyone a chance to breathe, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said in an interview earlier this week.

“That was a very difficult decision for the Senate to make, but it was the right decision,” he said.

“It’s all up to the conferees now,” Gilbert said.