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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More budget talks set for today; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Efforts to end Virginia’s unprecedented budget deadlock have stalled yet again, but negotiators are set to return to the conference table today.

The Senate and House of Delegates started meeting in January, but have yet to come up with a state budget. The new fiscal year begins on July 1 and a new budget must be in place by then to avoid at least a partial government shutdown.

Both sides continued to fire curt letters back and forth across the General Assembly Building — the preferred method of communication throughout the dispute — again Monday.

Friday’s negotiations, originally scheduled to go through the weekend, ran into trouble after delegates introduced a proposal to include $800 million for transportation in this year’s budget.

Transportation has been the major sticking point in negotiations throughout both sessions.

Senators originally wanted to include more than $1 billion in tax increases for transportation in the budget document but backed off after the House caucus held fast. In 2004, the Senate peeled off enough Republicans to push through more than $1.5 billion in tax increases.

Delegates offered their own plan — a nearly $1.03 billion fund for roads over the next two years, with talks to come later on where the money would come from.

But the Senate stripped transportation out of its budget and approved a spending plan that reflects former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s last proposal, made just weeks before his term ended.

Senators returned the latest House proposal without comment, according to Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Shortly thereafter, they came to my office and said that transportation was non-negotiable and that by injecting it into the discussion the House wanted to shut down government,” Callahan wrote in a letter to the House GOP caucus.

House leaders have always maintained that they want a transportation reserve fund to be part of the negotiations, he wrote.

But what the House wanted, the House got, wrote Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg.

“Transportation is not and will not be in our agreed-upon agenda,” Chichester wrote in a letter to Callahan on Monday. “The House has made it abundantly clear that it believes the budget should be resolved first and then, and only then, should transportation be addressed.”

A deal was within striking distance before delegates brought transportation back to the table, according to Scott Leake, executive director of the Virginia Senate Republican Leadership Trust.

The two sides had “slogged” through the capital expenditures budget and had their bottom lines less than 4 percent apart.

But the onus remains on the Senate to come back to the table, according to House Majority Leader Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.

“The Senate walked out,” Griffith said. “You can’t do anything unless you’re meeting.”

Sources on both sides of the negotiations have said the two groups will return to the conference table an hour after the session concludes today.

As for the agenda in today’s session, the main item of discussion was set to be Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s changes and line-item vetoes in House Bill 5012, the 2004-2006 “caboose bill.”

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said via e-mail that as of Monday evening, plans called for the session to address Kaine’s veto of a $4.5 million funding cut for the Virginia Performing Arts foundation.

That’s not to say there won’t be some discussion of the budget situation on the floor of both chambers.

“Obviously we’ll be getting some updates from our conferees,” Griffith said.
R Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com