Virginia Senate ends partisan budget standoff

March 22, 2012

Virginia’s partisan budget standoff came to a close Thursday, the second day of 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 Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport.

The Senate Finance Committee passed a two-year, $85 billion spending plan that devotes extra funding to Democratic priorities. The vote came one day after Democrats said publicly that they had divorced their demand for more representation on Senate committees from the budget process.

Agreement on the Senate committee does not guarantee swift passage of a state budget.

The full Senate is expected to reconvene Monday to vote on the plan. It is expected to clear the Senate but be rejected Tuesday by 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 Metrorail funding, which would come not from general funds but through budget language raising Virginia’s bond authorization.

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

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

“I told you so — quote,” said Saslaw (D-Fairfax), smiling.

To avert a shutdown, differ-ences between that spending plan and the one passed by the House will have to be worked out before the fiscal year begins July 1.

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

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

Republicans have controlled the evenly divided Senate by
virtue of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s ability to break tie votes. But Bolling, a Republican, cannot vote on the budget. Democrats used the threat of a budget stalemate to push for more power on committees, which Republicans, aided by Bolling, stacked in their favor.

Republicans had accused them of playing politics with the budget. Democrats, who had questioned 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 it’s progress,” Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), said in an e-mail. “Most importantly, it’s a recognition by Senate Democrats that the needs of our communities are more important than their desire for more committee seats.”

He declined to comment on specifics of the budget plan, saying they were under review.

Democrats had tried to use the budget process to continue their fight against a bill requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion, pushing to include money to cover the cost of the test. The budget approved by the committee did not include those funds. Howell said Democrats will offer a floor amendment Monday requiring that insurers or the state cover it. A similar amendment failed in 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. The House budget includes $24 million for that.

The Senate version includes an estimated $70 million to $100 million, to be financed by bonds, to delay the imposition of tolls in Hampton Roads. 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 by making cuts elsewhere in the budget, including $20 million from a fund McDonnell proposed to prepare for any federal cuts. The panel also directed $60 million in other aid to localities be spent on schools, specifically K-12 education, pre-kindergarten programs and inflation expenses.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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