Va. House, Senate pass competing budgets to close deficit

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

RICHMOND -- Budget writers in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates adopted competing plans Sunday to shrink government services in the face of a $4 billion budget shortfall.

The budgets, approved by the financial committees of the two chambers, include deep cuts to education, health services and public safety. Both committees also agreed to save more than half a billion dollars over the next two years by reducing payments to Virginia's pension plans for state and local employees.

The two plans, however, demonstrate a stark difference in governing philosophies between the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House.

The Senate Finance Committee agreed to raise fees on a host of services to cushion the blow to public education, cutting $487 million less in education funding over the next two years than the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee. House members rejected increased fees amid the recession, seeing them as no different than tax increases. The conflict between the two chambers over spending must be resolved before the General Assembly adjourns its annual legislative session March 13.

The committees were confronted with the same stark realities: an economic downturn that has drained state coffers and a Republican governor elected to office on a promise not to raise taxes. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has vowed to veto new taxes.

The task became trickier in December, when then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) proposed a budget that helped close the gap by eliminating the $950 million each year the state spends to provide residents relief on their local car tax.

On Sunday, both committees chose to restore the funding, as McDonnell had insisted, avoiding a dramatic increase in the car tax. As a result, they were forced to find cuts beyond the $2.3 billion Kaine had made.

In a statement, McDonnell commended both budgets.

"We will work together across party lines to cut spending while not raising taxes," he said. "As we do this, we will not forget that the reductions we make, while necessary for the future prosperity and vitality of our commonwealth, will mean real hardships in the near term for many of our citizens."

Senators lessened the blow by accepting $145 million in fee increases Kaine proposed before he left office and adding about $100 million of their own.

"Our task this session has been to make sure, at the end of the day, that we have made the best choices among what is a series of painful, difficult decisions," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), chairman of the Finance Committee.

The House committee reduced funding less dramatically for health and human resources than the Senate, cutting about $200 million instead of the Senate's $344 million over two years. It also avoided some deep cuts in public safety recommended by Kaine.

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