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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

Friday, June 09, 2006

State attorney general urges legislators to enact budget; B2

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

Virginia legislators have a choice: Approve a budget or instigate a constitutional crisis.

That was the message Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell delivered to his GOP colleagues in the General Assembly on Thursday.

Acting on a request from the legislature, McDonnell opined that no state funds could be spent without a budget. The Republican-led House of Delegates and Senate are still at odds over a spending plan with only days remaining in the current two-year budget.

Kaine had said that he would keep key government services running until someone, such as a judge or the General Assembly, told him to stop.

One branch of government simply can’t hobble another by failing to act, Kaine said this week.

But McDonnell’s opinion precludes any spending decisions by the executive in the absence of a budget.

“While the Governor does have certain implied executive power, such implied authority cannot overcome the sole and specific express grant of spending authority to the legislature,” McDonnell wrote in his opinion.

But the opinion is “more about what the General Assembly must do, not what the governor can’t do,” McDonnell said on a conference call with re-porters.

Legislators have to act quickly to either approve a full budget or some kind of stopgap measure.

“There is an absolute and solemn duty [on the part of legislators] to appropriate funds,” McDonnell said. “There are only two choices for the General Assembly.”

And the time to do so is short. Getting all the legislative ducks in a row will take at least a week, giving members a maximum of 10 days to do a deal and ship it off to the governor.

Kaine could declare an emergency and issue orders to keep some services running, but he couldn’t issue checks out of the state treasury without the legislature’s consent, the attorney general said.

“The Attorney General and I are unified in our desire that the General Assembly meet its responsibility to complete a budget before the end of the fiscal year,” Kaine said in a written statement issued later.

“I commend the Attorney General for his efforts to help secure a budget bill, which is a fundamental legislative obligation,” he said.

The opinion is in line with historic precedent, according to one local delegate.

“Virginia has always been a legislature-driven state,” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal. “The notion behind the commonwealth is that it’s driven behind the legislature.”

Hardly anyone was more shocked that the situation has reached this point than the rank-and-file GOP, said Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg. Legislators came to Richmond expecting to end the impasse.

“Suffice it to say that … [he and other legislators] expected there to be a budget to be voted on that very day,” he said. “There couldn’t have been a bigger surprise to us.”

The disagreement over in-cluding any transportation funding increases in the budget is new, but is symptomatic of the overall situation, Athey said.

Senators have been in a “tactical retreat for some period of time,” he said. The public doesn’t support tax increases when there’s a multi-billion-dollar surplus on the table.

House Republicans want to see the surplus funds dedicated to transportation, rather than being spent on other items.

But it’s not worth forcing a government shutdown, Athey said.

“However, the commonwealth of Virginia needs a budget,” he said. “Somebody’s got to be an adult in this situation.”

“[House and Senate negotiators] were in pretty good agreement on most things,” he said. “I still believe that we will wind up with a budget in sufficient time. I’ll be very, very surprised if we end up with a constitutional crisis.”

“Virginia has been around for around 400 years, and to my knowledge we’ve never defaulted on a budget,” May said. “We’ve never shirked our duty.”