Hope Flickers as Budget Talks Lag
Friday, June 16, 2006
RICHMOND, June 15 -- Virginia's budget negotiators continued to bicker Thursday but reported slow progress toward a new state spending plan as the July 1 expiration of the current state budget approaches.
The day started tensely as House negotiators camped out in their ninth-floor library, while Senate lawmakers had retreated to the 10th-floor office of Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland).
Reading a missive from the House on Thursday morning, Chichester at one point exclaimed: "God, they're dumb as rocks!"
House lawmakers expressed similar exasperation about their Senate counterparts. After reading a letter from senators aloud, Robert Vaughn, the staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, threw up his hands in frustration.
"They're like an EKG," he said, referring to the way the needle on a heart monitor bounces all over the place. "They're going to give somebody a heart attack."
But as the day wore on, Chichester and House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) met several times and expressed hope that a deal could be worked out by the weekend. If so, the House and Senate could vote on a final budget early next week and send it to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) for his signature.
After agreeing last month to defer a debate over taxes and transportation spending until the fall, lawmakers had hoped to pass a new budget quickly. But they remain stuck on a series of disagreements about relatively small spending priorities. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans.
On Thursday, the two sides debated how much to include in the budget for a 3 percent pay raise for state employees and teachers in the second year of the new budget. They also argued about money for stream and river cleanup in the southern parts of the state.
Sensing the breakdown of negotiations, Kaine called the group of 11 lawmakers into his mansion for an impromptu dinner Wednesday night. Aides said he urged them to "split the difference" on the small items, and he warned that he would have to begin preparations for a partial shutdown early next week.
The governor has vowed to use broad executive power to keep the state running but has said that doesn't mean he would keep every part of the government open.
"The governor strongly urges negotiators to reach a deal," said Kaine's spokesman, Kevin Hall. "Posturing that's predictable in mid-March is not helpful or amusing in mid-June."
Even as lawmakers squabbled, the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Thursday approved a slimmed-down version of the state's six-year transportation construction plan.
The cutbacks mean major delays for widening Route 7 and construction of a bridge over Route 29 in western Fairfax County. Other cuts included the Route 28 overpass at Wellington Road in Manassas, a nexus of traffic in a rapidly growing area, and the extension of Mill Road in Alexandria.
At the start of the week, both delegates and senators had reported encouraging progress in budget talks. They predicted that they might reach a deal shortly that their colleagues in the General Assembly could have adopted by today.
As the week wore on, however, negotiations slowed.
"This is worse than waiting at the D concourse at the Atlanta airport on a Friday afternoon," said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol), sprawled on a couch with his eyes closed. "We are experiencing some difficulties and expect flight delays."
Staff writer Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.