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$63 Billion Budget Deal Reached in Va.

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page C01

RICHMOND, Feb. 26 -- Virginia lawmakers reached a deal on a $63 billion budget early Saturday after House and Senate negotiators stopped fighting over whether to spend a few million dollars on a rural equestrian center and an underground walkway at the Capitol.

Disagreements about those and other minor items had held up an agreement to update the two-year budget. With those issues resolved, lawmakers scheduled a Sunday session to take a final vote on the budget before going home for the year.

Emily Carrico hangs on her dad, Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., during the session in Richmond. (Steve Helber -- AP)

The delay means lawmakers will not adjourn on time, despite efforts by leaders in both chambers to erase the memory of last session's two-month deadlock over raising taxes. But legislators said they are pleased with the results of their 47-day gathering.

"All's well that ends well," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "It's a good budget. We have more money for transportation. We're doing a lot for the Chesapeake Bay and the environment."

Lawmakers passed more than 900 bills during the 2005 session, all of which are now headed for the desk of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). Warner has until March 29 to sign or veto the bills, or propose amendments. The legislature will convene for a one-day session April 6 to consider his actions.

Among their top accomplishments, legislators said, were an $850 million transportation spending package and $50 million for bay cleanup. They also voted to reduce the tax on groceries, a cut residents will see in their food bills starting July 1. The Assembly agreed to restructure the state's relationship with its colleges and universities, freeing them from bureaucratic strictures in exchange for pledges to keep education affordable. And they took the first step in amending the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.

But dozens of bills deemed important to one chamber of the legislature were rejected by the other. They fell down a philosophical divide over social legislation and taxes between the Republicans who control both bodies.

"The House is fundamentally different than the Senate. We both have 60 percent Republicans, but the nature of Republicans in the bodies are different," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), an anti-tax hardliner who has expressed frustration with his Senate colleagues. "What we have now is two veto bodies."

The chasm between the chambers was narrower this year than last, when senators united with maverick delegates to push through a $1.5 billion, two-year tax increase they argued would invest in the future of education and health care.

This year, the split was revealed in debates over social legislation. A Senate panel rejected a constitutional amendment authored by the House to explicitly recognize the right of children to pray in school. Senators blocked a measure that would have required officials to investigate whether those seeking to adopt children were involved in a homosexual relationship.

A Senate committee called an emergency meeting to unanimously and unceremoniously drop the "droopy drawers" bill, which would have imposed a $50 fine for wearing pants in a way that exposed underwear beneath. The bill had attracted international ridicule.

Democrats in the Senate, many of whom strongly oppose attempts to curtail abortion rights and gay rights, declared victory for the year despite the same-sex marriage vote.

"The story this year is that their whole social agenda went down the drain," Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said of conservative Republicans in the House. "The more deliberative body blocked them."

But conservatives could point to legislation supported by the Senate that received similarly scant support in the House, especially on matters they believe involve excessive government intrusion into private lives.

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