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Virginia Politics
Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 03/22/2012

Virginia state budget standoff ends

This post has been updated.

Virginia’s partisan budget standoff came to a close Thursday, the second day into a special General Assembly session, as Republicans and Democrats on a Senate committee unanimously agreed to shift tens of millions of dollars toward schools, Medicare and toll relief, and to borrow $300 million more for the Metro-to-Dulles rail project.


Virginia Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), chairman of the Senate Finance committee, center, with Senate Majority leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). (Tracy A. Woodward - WASHINGTON POST)
The Senate Finance Committee passed a two-year, $85 billion spending plan that devotes extra funding to Democratic priorities one day after Democrats said publicly that they had separated their demand for more representation on Senate committees from the budget process.

The full Senate is expected to reconvene Monday to vote on the plan. It is expected to clear the Senate and be rejected on Tuesday in the more conservative House. It would then move to a conference committee, where negotiators from both parties and both chambers would try to come to an agreement.

Democrats, who had taken some heat for holding up the budget, quickly declared victory.

“Three-hundred million for Phase II!” declared Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), referring to the Dulles rail funding, which would not come from general funds but budget language raising Virginia’s bond authorization.

“I’m very pleased,” said Howell, who pushed for the funding with Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun). “It was very hard work.”

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, who had dismissed predictions that the standoff could drag on for months and cause a partial government shut-down, was only too pleased to comply with a reporter’s request for an “I-told-you-so quote.”

“I told you so — quote,” Saslaw said, smiling.

Agreement on the Senate committee does not, in itself, guarantee swift passage of a state budget. To avert a shut-down, differences between that spending plan and the one passed by the House will have to be worked out in a conference committee before the fiscal year begins July 1.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico) , who also expressed pleasure with the outcome Thursday, said he had already provided copies of the plan to House leaders.

“They will not be blindsided in any way,” Stosch said.

Since they picked up two seats in November’s elections, Republicans have controlled the evenly divided Senate by virtue of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R)’s ability to break tie votes. But Bolling cannot vote on the budget. Democrats used the threat of a budget stalemate to push for more power on committees, which Republicans stacked in their favor at the start of the session with Bolling’s help.

Republicans accused them of playing politics with the budget. Democrats, who had contested Bolling’s authority to vote on Senate organization, contended that they were only trying to correct what they called a GOP power grab.

“It’s late, but its progress,” Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, said via e-mail. “Most importantly, its a recognition by Senate Democrats that the needs of our communities are more important than their desire for more committee seats. Finally, we’re talking policy and not politics, and now the budget process can get fully underway. While we will review all proposed amendments in depth prior to commenting on any specific items, the Governor thanks all involved for their work today in moving the budget forward.”

Democrats have also used the budget process to continue their fight over legislation that passed over fierce objections during the regular session, which requires women to get an ultrasound before an abortion. They have pushed to have money added to the budget to cover the cost of the test.

But the budget that passed the committee did not include those funds. Howell said Democrats planned to offer a floor amendment Monday that would require health insurers to cover the ultrasound, and require the state to pay for uninsured women. A similar amendment failed in the Senate during the regular session.

The budget plan provides Northern Virginia schools with $60 million in so-called cost-of-competing funding, to help them hire staff in the region’s expensive job market.

McDonnell’s budget plan had eliminated those funds for non-teaching staff, costing schools $65 million. The Senate committee had restored $42 million of that in an earlier version of the budget, but Senate Democrats continued their push and got an extra $18 million added to that in the plan adopted Thursday, for a total of $60 million. The House budget includes $24 million in cost-of-competing funds.

The Senate Finance Committee plan would include millions — estimates ranged from $70 million to $100 million — to delay imposition of tolls in Hampton Roads.

It provides money to cover inflation costs at schools and fund more pre-kindergarten programs. It also restores funding to poison-control centers and teen pregnancy programs, nursing homes, child-care services and programs that help people with physical disabilities find employment.

The plan pays for that not by raising taxes, but by making cuts elsewhere in the budget. That includes removing $20 million from the Federal Action Contingency Trust (FACT) fund, a rainy day fund McDonnell proposed to prepare for large federal cuts. The committee also redirected $60 million in other aid to localities for schools, specifying that the money be spent on K-12 education, inflation expenses and pre-kindergarten programs.

By  |  03:00 PM ET, 03/22/2012

 
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