Va. Democrats press McDonnell for plan to balance budget

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, shown at a news conference Tuesday, has made conflicting remarks about presenting a budget-cutting plan.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, shown at a news conference Tuesday, has made conflicting remarks about presenting a budget-cutting plan. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia Democrats on Thursday issued their strongest challenge yet to Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to detail his plans to cut $2 billion from the state's budget, accusing him on the Senate floor of avoiding his governing responsibilities.

The pointed criticism, which came one day after McDonnell was in the national spotlight delivering the GOP response to the State of the Union address, attempts to lay the pain of severe state budget reductions at McDonnell's feet. The Democrats suggest that the cuts will result in thousands of lost jobs during the watch of a governor who has pledged that his administration's main focus will be job creation.

McDonnell has vowed to work with legislators on the difficult task of closing a two-year, $4 billion budget shortfall, but he has offered conflicting remarks about whether he will lay out a formal plan to do so. The General Assembly, with one chamber controlled by Republicans and one by Democrats, is supposed to adopt a budget before the last day of its legislative session, scheduled for March 13.

"The campaign's over. Let's put it in the closet, save it for another day," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) in a lengthy speech on the Senate floor. "I'm proud of what the governor was able to say to America last night. I'm proud of what our president is doing. But it's time to get down to work."

In a statement, McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson said Thursday that the governor will provide advice as the General Assembly moves through the legislative process.

"We agreed to give the House and Senate suggestions and alternatives that would fit with the governor's initiatives and goals," Johnson said. "We still plan to do this. There was no commitment by us to directly submit budget reduction amendments. . . . Ideas based on bipartisan efforts will ultimately make their way into the budget in the final analysis."

McDonnell has been highly critical of the budget plan submitted in December by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), which included a proposal to raise the state's income tax and $2.3 billion in spending cuts. But McDonnell has not offered legislators suggestions about how to cut the $2 billion necessary to avoid a tax increase.

"What's the plan? What is our governor's plan to address the second $2 billion in cuts?" Houck thundered on the floor. "What is the plan to address the second two? Tell us!"

Democrats are adjusting to their new status in Richmond after losing the governor's mansion by more then 17 percentage points to McDonnell in November. They now hold only a slim majority in the Senate, but they are signaling that they will use that perch to act as a counterweight to the governor.

They are also signaling that they may coalesce around eliminating the state's $950 million-a-year car tax relief program as a way to close the budget gap, which would probably result in an increase in the car tax for most Virginians. That would put the Senate on a collision course with McDonnell and the GOP-led House of Delegates, which has vowed not to raise taxes.

"Instead of complaining about the governor, they ought to be trying to find solutions," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). He said Senate Democrats' aim is to drum up public support for a tax increase and "knock down the governor."

"They are clearly brewing for a fight," said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg). "It didn't take much time for lip service for bipartisanship to go by the boards."

Under Virginia's budget-writing rules, an outgoing governor proposes a two-year budget as one of his last acts in office and submits it to the legislature for review. Generally, a new governor submits proposed changes shortly after taking office. But there is no law that requires a new governor to offer formal amendments.

When reporters asked McDonnell about the issue last week, he said: "I intend to. Two billion is the hole. . . . In due course, I will make cuts to the money committees."

But this week, he indicated that he might not send legislators a formal plan.

"We're working on the best way to do that,'' McDonnell told reporters Tuesday. "How and when and under what format, we are still discussing, but I want to be a help so by the time a budget reaches my desk, I know it's pretty close to me being able to sign."

Staff writers Anita Kumar and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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