GOP Caucus Vows To Tighten Belts Amid Fiscal Crunch

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008

RICHMOND, Dec. 14 -- Leaders of the Virginia House of Delegates said Sunday that they will curtail earmarks and cut $1.1 million in operational expenses to help the state address a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

The Republican delegates agreed to stop using the state plane to return home for the weekend, reduce their travel to conferences, cancel training and eliminate more than six staff positions. They also agreed to maintain their current annual salary of $17,640 and forgo an increase in the per diems they receive for expenses.

"Right now, Virginia's families and business are making necessary and sometimes difficult adjustments to deal with the effects of the current economic climate," Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said. "The people they elect to represent them have the same responsibility. We will meet this challenge."

House Republicans met behind closed doors Sunday afternoon at the state Capitol to talk about the 45-day legislative session that begins Jan. 14.

Legislators who were contacted said they were not supposed to speak publicly about what the caucus decided and declined to comment.

Much of the session will be dominated by attempts to reduce the state's two-year, $77 billion budget, which went into effect July 1.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has projected a shortfall of at least $2.5 billion; the Senate Finance Committee staff forecasts a $3.2 billion shortfall.

Kaine will present his budget revisions to the General Assembly's money committees Wednesday.

House Republicans agreed Sunday that they will support only earmarks that pertain to core state services as part of any budget amendments during the session.

"While some of these budget earmarks . . . may have merit, the commonwealth cannot afford to approve such spending in these challenging times," Howell said. "By declaring the intention of our caucus today, we are optimistic that requests for these earmarks will be dramatically reduced, allowing the Appropriations Committee to focus on the daunting challenge it faces in closing Virginia's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall."

House Republicans also agreed to change their rules and record votes taken in subcommittee meetings, during which many bills are killed. An unrecorded voice vote makes it difficult to track a member's position on controversial legislation.

Americans for Prosperity, a group that supports limited government and free trade, had pushed Republicans to make the change.

"This is a great victory for government transparency and a great victory for people in Virginia," said Ben Marchi, the group's state director.

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