Budget Proposals Reveal Discord

Travis G. Hill, of the Richmond law firm Williams Mullen, waits with others for summaries of the House Appropriations Committee budget.
Travis G. Hill, of the Richmond law firm Williams Mullen, waits with others for summaries of the House Appropriations Committee budget. (By Mark Gormus -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 20, 2006

RICHMOND, Feb. 19 -- House and Senate lawmakers on Sunday unveiled competing plans to spend about $72 billion that Virginia government will collect during the next two years, setting in motion an extended debate about whether to raise taxes and how much to spend for transportation improvements.

Two years after the Republican-controlled chambers deadlocked over tax increases, the budget proposals approved by the House and Senate money committees reveal not only disagreement about specific items, but also a fundamental split over how to finance the state's operations.

As they did in 2004, senators are pushing tax increases, this time to pay for billions of dollars in road and transit construction. The House is sticking to its contention that transportation can be financed without higher taxes.

That dispute could lead to another stalemate next month while senior lawmakers seek to hammer out a compromise.

"Where does it stop? What's the crisis next year?" asked House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights). "Every time there's a perceived end-of-the-world crisis, we're going to raise taxes? Where does it stop?"

Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) said the two chambers are as far apart as they have ever been, and he predicted that a budget deal would not be reached by the scheduled end of the session, March 11.

"We have a different philosophy on how to manage the state's finances," he said. "I don't think anything's changed."

The committee actions were the first formal changes to the budget offered by Mark R. Warner (D) and inherited by his successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). The spending plans now go to the full House and Senate.

Transportation funding has become the central issue in the 2006 General Assembly primarily because of Kaine, who has held 13 town hall meetings across Virginia to discuss traffic congestion.

"The message from Virginia is clear: It is time for action," he said in his first speech to lawmakers after his inauguration in January.

On Sunday, Kaine press secretary Kevin Hall criticized the House budget, saying it offers too little money for transportation and slashes funding for other needed programs. But, he said, Kaine remains optimistic. "At the end of the day, reasonable heads will prevail and will come up with a plan that looks long range and makes statewide investments to keep Virginia moving forward," Hall said.

Kaine has proposed raising automobile-related taxes by about $1 billion a year to reinvigorate the state's transportation spending. His plan would increase sales taxes on cars, impose higher fines on bad drivers, increase vehicle registration fees and increase taxes on auto insurance premiums.

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