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Politics as Usual Leaves Little Room for Cooperation

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page VA04

A dominant theme in Gov. Mark R. Warner's inaugural remarks in 2002 was a plea to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to put aside partisan differences.

"Mr. Speaker," he said to the then-leader of the House of Delegates, S. Vance Wilkins Jr., "I extend to you the hand of friendship and cooperation."

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Nearly three years later, Wilkins is gone and the relationship between Warner and the leaders in the Republican-controlled House has soured.

In the summer, some lawmakers and administration officials had privately expressed hope that the bitterness of this year's fight over taxes could be set aside as Warner enters his fourth and final year. This week, however, there was fresh evidence that friendship and cooperation will be noticeably absent when the House leadership returns to Richmond in January.

On Monday, senior House Republicans who were bested by Warner in the tax debate orchestrated an early political attack. They criticized him for boosting his office budget by transferring more than $1 million from other executive agencies.

Never mind that the money amounted to less than one-ten-thousandth of the state's two-year, $60 billion budget.

Or that the practice started under Republican Gov. George Allen and continued under Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III.

During an Appropriations Committee meeting, the leaders of the House Republicans compared the practice to the accounting chicanery that brought down Enron.

"Dear God!" Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) exclaimed at one point.

Warner aides said the attack was a political ploy, even as they acknowledged that the popular governor left his adversaries an opening by failing to fix what they called a regrettable budgeting gimmick.

Mindful that Warner's popularity is based largely on his reputation for financial integrity, they offered examples of the budgeting sins of past Republican governors. Gilmore's staff, for example, included nine people whose salaries were paid by the Department of Corrections, the Department of Housing and Community Development and other agencies.

The dispute over Warner's budget is likely to drag into the winter. If Warner continues the budget gimmicks, Republican leaders will pounce. If he asks for a straight-up budget increase, Republicans could just say no.

With relations between Warner and House leaders at an ebb, there may be no way to avoid that kind of a confrontation.

The Republican delegates who went after Warner say the problem with his office budget is symptomatic of a bigger issue: trust. Several have been simmering for months about the improving economy, apparently thinking Warner misled them by understating the recovery so that he could pass a tax increase.


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