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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, May 22, 2006

Legislators: Senate to introduce no tax-hike budget; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The Virginia Senate may be about to concede the battle, but the war is far from over.

Legislators from both the House of Delegates and Senate said Monday that the upper chamber is preparing to offer another budget plan that might finally break the stalemate today — one that will not include tax increases or a transportation plan.

“We’ve tossed the ball down the field. Now the ball’s in their court,” said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, a member of the Senate’s finance committee.

The message to delegates is simple, he said.

“If you’re really serious about transportation, here it is. We’ve laid down the challenge,” Potts said. Some senators have expressed doubt that House leaders are serious when they say they’ll come back to Richmond to work on transportation issues.

Are they?

“Absolutely,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. “We’ve been saying from the beginning that [transportation funding reform is] something that should be discussed separately” from the overall budget.

“We’re excited about the possibility that they’ve come to their senses,” he said, but no one should be foolish enough to think it’s a done deal.

“Even if they send us a budget, it’s still got to go to conference, and lord knows what could happen there,” he said.

The legislation was still being crafted as of late Monday, but it was due to be presented to the Senate Finance Committee at an 11 a.m. meeting today. From there, it’s expected to move on to the entire Senate for an up-or-down vote.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Potts. “I know that the conferees have labored mightily to try to come to some kind of compromise.”

Republicans in the Senate and House have been bitterly divided over how the state should go about fixing its ailing transportation system.

Senators wanted about $1 billion in new taxes each year to pay for more spending, while delegates called for using the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus and bonds to pay for road work.

But delegates objected to the Senate’s insistence on introducing new taxes in the state’s budget bill, saying the Senate was holding the state’s budget “hostage” for political leverage.

New taxes have traditionally been enacted by separate legislation, per the state constitution, delegates have argued.

Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and leaders in the Senate had hoped to repeat Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner’s successful strategy of 2004: Use constituent pressure to peel off just enough Republicans in the House to get the legislation through the lower chamber.

But roads are a far tougher sell than money for schools, teachers and police officers, some legislative Democrats conceded last week. Efforts on both sides to rally the public — and to get them to Capitol Square to buttonhole legislators — fell flat.

Delegates have said they’re more than willing to talk about transportation issues — but not while the Senate is holding the threat of a government shutdown over their heads.

A spokesman for Kaine declined to comment on the situation late Monday.

Monday’s developments were the latest in a series of running skirmishes between the two chambers. While both are nominally led by the same party, the two have been at odds since the 2004 session.

The split was so bad two years ago that the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a state budget in their allotted time and had to go into a special session to finish their work. As one senator put it, there’s not a lot of trust in the Patrick Henry Building.

“Relations are bad,” Potts said. “That’s a shame.”

Gilbert echoed Potts’ sentiments.

“It’s been better,” he said.

That’s all the more reason to come back and work on the transportation issue, Gilbert said.
Many rifts will be healed if “we can put our heads together” and come up with a plan that “everyone is completely happy with, but works for Virginia,” he said.