Leaders Say Budget Deal Appears Near
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
RICHMOND, June 12 -- Virginia lawmakers reported encouraging progress Monday in their efforts to agree on a state budget before the end of the fiscal year June 30.
The 11 delegates and senators appointed to negotiate the budget worked steadily through the weekend, coming to informal agreement on billions in state spending in several major areas, including public safety and state building projects.
With the deadline looming for adopting a budget or risking a potential government shutdown, they said they planned to continue work Tuesday and could produce a final budget deal to put to a vote of their chambers by the end of the week.
"I can almost see white smoke," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "Not quite, but almost."
Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was optimistic that negotiations have now "entered the final inning."
The General Assembly adjourned March 11 without agreeing on a new budget. Since March 27, the legislature has been meeting in special session, with the GOP-controlled House of Delegates and Senate unable to agree whether to raise taxes to pay for road improvements.
On May 23, the Senate abandoned its demand for higher taxes for transportation, and both chambers agreed to defer their battle over new road and rail funding until after they completed the budget for other needs. Still, the two sides stalemated on a variety of smaller issues.
Never before has the state come this close to the start of a new fiscal year without a spending plan in place. Government officials have acknowledged uncertainty about what would happen if legislators failed to agree by July 1.
On the one hand, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has repeatedly asserted he could use executive powers to keep much and perhaps all of government running. On the other hand, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) formally opined last week that Virginia's constitution gives the governor no authority to spend money without a budget. If the impasse continued, the disagreement probably would end up in court.
But the senior lawmakers assigned the task of coming to a final budget deal expressed confidence Monday that such a clash could be avoided. Instead of trading insults and snippy letters as they did all of last week, legislators Monday came to agreement after agreement on line items that had separated them.
The turning point, Callahan said, came last week when a crescendo of rising fear about implications of the deadline culminated in McDonnell's doomsday opinion. Senators and delegates agreed they could pass a Washington-style continuing resolution to keep the current budget in place and buy time, but they became fearful of setting a precedent that might let future legislatures routinely ignore the June 30 deadline.
"I think it finally dawned on people that we have to get the damn thing done," Callahan said.
To get the budget onto the floor of the General Assembly by Friday or Saturday, the budget conference must finish its work by late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, several lawmakers said. That would give staff members time to organize and print the massive document and then distribute it to all 139 members of the legislature to review before voting.
They warned that last-minute disputes could put progress on hold.
Despite agreeing to put off debate about new transportation funding until late summer or fall, both sides have said they will put some cash from the state's healthy surplus into roads now. They have yet to agree, however, on how much. Action on that issue will set up the larger debate on roads that is to come: Spend more now, as delegates want to do, and the case for higher taxes will be weaker. Spend less, as senators now argue, and the need for new revenues will be more apparent.
"We haven't gotten into that in depth yet," acknowledged Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol), a Senate negotiator.