Virginia lawmakers prepare for possibly contentious last day of session

May 13, 2012

Nearly a month behind schedule, the Virginia General Assembly expects to adjourn Monday for the year. But lawmakers may not leave quietly.

Legislators plan to consider more than 100 amendments to the state budget made by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and select more than three dozen judges to fill vacancies across Virginia.

At least two of the governor’s proposed changes — forcing universities to pick up the entire tab for an employee bonus and requiring localities to seek approval from the state for transportation plans — face tough votes.

A third budget amendment, which some state lawmakers have said would withhold money for the authority overseeing construction of the Metro extension to Dulles International Airport, has drawn outright opposition.

Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) said that change is clearly intended to hold up the state’s $150 million contribution to Metro’s multibillion-dollar planned extension to the airport. “The language seems pretty clear and unambiguous,” Herring said.

However, Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton has said the governor’s action would not compromise state funding to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

With Republicans controlling the House of Delegates and the Senate, it’s unclear whether Democrats have the votes to kill any of the governor’s proposed changes.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said he anticipates a day free from the contentious debate that marked much of the regular and special sessions.

“I’m hopeful we can go ahead and vote on the governor’s amendments,” Norment said. “There’s not the opportunity for a meaningful policy debate.”

McDonnell (R) submitted 17 amendments to the state’s current budget and 88 amendments to the two-year $85 billion budget that will go into effect July 1. Some changes directed more money to education, economic development and scientific research, while many are technical.

House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said he worries that McDonnell is trying to amend the budget in ways that legislators already considered and rejected.

“The governor seems to want a second bite of the apple,” he said. “I think a number of people in the General Assembly would be concerned about that approach.”

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who presides over the Senate, can break tie votes but not on the budget or judicial elections. He can, however, vote on the governor’s amendments, including the budget, according to Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar.

So while Senate Republicans needed at least one Democratic vote in the evenly divided chamber to pass the budget, they can approve McDonnell’s amendments if they vote together.

The new spending plan approved last month pumps tens of millions more dollars into local governments, public schools, hospitals and nursing homes than the original proposal. State employees, college faculty and some local government workers would get a one-time 3 percent bonus in December if the employees can find enough efficiencies in government.

McDonnell wants the state’s universities to pay for the bonus and limit tuition increases to no more than 3 percent. He would also require that localities that maintain their own roads, including Arlington County, clear their transportation plans with state officials.

Mary Hynes, chairwoman of the Arlington County Board, said the proposal goes against McDonnell’s oft-stated goal of easing mandates on localities.

“We’re disappointed,” Hynes said. “We think it will really slow things down.”

McDonnell also would use higher-than-anticipated lottery proceeds and this year’s surplus to bankroll $43.9 million in amendments, including $2 million to lure filmmakers to Virginia and $7.5 million to help localities adjust to changes in military bases.

The governor kept the cost-of-competing funds provided to Northern Virginia schools to help them attract staff in the expensive jobs market, but he would require that the money be withheld in the second year of the budget until auditors review the program.

Other proposals Democratic legislators are concerned about are a reduction in money for community-based services for the elderly and inflation adjustments for non-personnel school costs.

The General Assembly, one of only two state legislatures empowered to choose judges, also will have a chance to appoint up to 41 of them if the House and Senate can agree. They include vacancies on the Court of Appeals and worker’s compensation board as well as five judges in Northern Virginia — two circuit court judges in Arlington, two general district court judges in Prince William County and one general district court judge in Loudoun.

There’s a small chance lawmakers may return to Richmond for additional special sessions to address the looming federal health-care law or tax policy.

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