Legislators Pass Budget, But Work Isn't Finished

Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, left, talks with Del. Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte), during a floor session of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, left, talks with Del. Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte), during a floor session of the Virginia House of Delegates. (By Bob Brown -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via Associated Press)
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By Anita Kumar and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 14, 2008

RICHMOND, March 13 -- The Virginia General Assembly adjourned its regular session Thursday after passing a two-year, $77 billion spending plan and immediately convened a special session to resolve another money issue: Legislators are trying to design a bond package to pay for construction projects at colleges and state parks.

The House approved the budget unanimously, followed by the Senate, which voted 26 to 14.

The special session will last until next month. It is needed to resolve differences between the House and Senate on Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's proposal to borrow more than $1 billion to finance construction projects. Kaine is expected to call another special session later this spring to finance transportation improvements.

Only a few legislators will actually be in Richmond for the next several weeks as Senate and House negotiators iron out their differences. The full legislature will return next month to vote.

Kaine (D) told reporters Thursday that instead of legislators staying in town until they complete their work, they should take a few days off.

"They are just tired," he said.

House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) agreed. "I think everyone needs to go home, take a few days and catch their breath. You can't negotiate anything with people who are tired and cranky."

In December, Kaine proposed a $1.6 billion bond package for college construction projects.

The Senate wants to issue $2.6 billion in bonds, but the House voted to borrow $1.8 billion, with some Republicans arguing that the state should not borrow as much during the national economic downturn.

Kaine said that he was disappointed that the General Assembly has not agreed on his bond proposal but that he is confident that the House and Senate can resolve their differences during the next month.

Transportation became a priority after the state Supreme Court ruled Feb. 29 that regional taxing authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia are unconstitutional. Lawmakers approved a plan Thursday to refund the fees and taxes the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has already collected.

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.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) accused Democrats of using the Supreme Court decision to push for a statewide tax increase that isn't needed. "I feel like I am being taken advantage of," Albo said.

Despite all the unfinished business, Kaine said he was pleased with the outcome of the 65-day legislative session even though many of his priorities had to be scaled back or eliminated because of the budget shortfall.

The House and Senate spent weeks haggling over a budget, which goes into effect July 1.

The budget will give state employees and teachers pay raises, place limits on tuition at public colleges and universities and boost funding for programs to help the mentally retarded. It also will include a new round of budget cuts for state agencies and local governments.

"I feel like a lot of heavy lifting was done, both policy and budget," said Kaine, noting that the General Assembly agreed to spend more on foster care, early childhood education and environmental protection. "For a tight budget, there was a lot of significant new policy."

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