Va. Senate Democrats in a bind on balancing state budget

Sen. R. Edward Houck wants Democrats to prepare a budget that cuts less deeply than GOP proposals.
Sen. R. Edward Houck wants Democrats to prepare a budget that cuts less deeply than GOP proposals. (Associated Press)

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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

RICHMOND -- Nearly every day, the Democrats who control Virginia's Senate rise to castigate Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell for not publicly detailing his plans for cutting $4 billion out of the state's two-year budget.

But the senators themselves are also torn about how to go about closing the budget gap, a sign of the difficulty they are having as they adjust to being the last redoubt for Democrats after losing the governor's mansion and several seats in the Republican-controlled House in November.

In particular, Senate Democrats are unsure whether they should support eliminating an almost $1 billion-a-year program that provides residents relief from their car-tax bills.

Phasing out the program, as recommended by former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) just before he left office, would result in tax bills rising, in some cases dramatically, exposing senators to complaints that they're proposing increased taxes amid a recession. Backing the phaseout would also probably be futile because House leaders and McDonnell have vowed to oppose it.

But phasing it out would also save $2 billion over two years, allowing the Democrats to put forth a budget that would cut far less deeply into education, public safety and health care, sparing jobs and services they think are critical. That spending plan would still contain about $2 billion in cuts, but it would allow the party to offer a stark alternative to the budget that will be put forward by the House, likely with McDonnell's approval.

"Do we, as Democrats, believe in core government services? Do we believe it or not?" said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), a senior member of the Finance Committee, who is urging his colleagues to prepare a budget that cuts less deeply than plans put forth by Republicans. "We should be the protectors of education, health care, public safety. And in doing so, we would be protecting tens of thousands of working Virginians' jobs that are going to be eliminated if we are not."

During his campaign, McDonnell ran as a moderate and promised to work across party lines. Since taking office, he has reached out to Democrats, inviting them to breakfast meetings and gathering them for cocktails at the governor's mansion.

But he has drawn a hard line on the budget, promising to veto any plan that includes a tax increase. Democrats must decide whether there is room to compromise.

Democrats are sufficiently muddled that their leaders predict more Republicans than Democrats may vote to approve the chamber's budget, which will be released Feb. 21. "That is a possibility," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

The car tax has split Virginia's political parties since Republican James S. Gilmore III was elected governor in 1997 on a promise to eliminate the local levy. The way the state chose to do that was essentially to subsidize the tax: Localities set the rate car owners pay, and under a complicated formula, the state pays roughly 70 percent of the tax for residents. That costs the state $950 million a year.

Now Democrats cannot decide how to handle the issue. Senate Finance Chairman Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), whose committee is responsible for writing the budget, was one of the first proponents of trying to provide residents a break on the car tax. He said he cannot stomach the idea of allowing the widely hated tax to rise.

And he said it makes no sense to produce a budget the House will reject when the two chambers ultimately must agree on a document before they adjourn the legislative session. "I don't know if we should be hitting our heads against a stone wall on that," Colgan said.


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