Budget Compromises Could Bring Legislative Session to an End
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
RICHMOND, March 10 -- House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement Monday night on their main differences in Virginia's two-year budget, which will probably allow the General Assembly to end its extended session this week.
After days of bickering, the House and Senate made major progress by agreeing to scale back Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's preschool initiative, give state employees and teachers pay raises and try to place limits on tuition at public colleges and universities.
The two sides also agreed to boost funding for programs to help the mentally retarded and ordered a new round of budget cuts for state agencies and local governments.
"This is a package deal that can get us out of here right now," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), chairman of the Finance Committee.
The scheduled 60-day legislative session was supposed to end Saturday, but the House and Senate voted to extend the session until Tuesday because they couldn't agree on a state budget. It is possible that the General Assembly will need until Thursday to complete its work, lawmakers said late Monday.
But even if they adjourn Thursday, lawmakers might need to come back to Richmond later this spring to see if they can agree on a way to raise money for transportation, which became a priority after the state Supreme Court ruled Feb. 29 that regional taxing authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia are unconstitutional.
On Sunday, Kaine (D) invited about a dozen Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate to discuss the transportation issue.
Senate Democrats want a statewide tax increase to go toward maintaining roads, but House Republicans oppose it because they want to focus on salvaging the regional panels by allowing local governments to enact the tax and fee increases.
No consensus was reached Sunday, but Kaine and legislators are considering whether the state could administer taxes that are collected in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads areas. But some lawmakers oppose that approach because they say state officials could eventually divert the money to purposes other than transportation.
The more immediate challenge of reaching a budget deal had been complicated by the economic slowdown. In Kaine's 2008-2010 budget proposal, revenues are projected to grow about 2 percent annually, compared with the double-digit growth the state has experienced in recent years.
House Republicans have insisted that most of the extra money in the budget be directed toward colleges and universities, whereas Senate Democrats wanted to spend more on Kaine's pre-kindergarten proposal and human services.
To break the stalemate, Senate Democrats on Monday dropped their demands that Kaine's preschool initiative be expanded to include some 4-year-olds eligible for reduced-priced school lunches, as Kaine had proposed.