Virginia lawmakers reach agreement on budget

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

RICHMOND -- After days of tense negotiations, House and Senate budget writers reached an agreement Saturday on a two-year state spending plan that includes deep cuts to education, health care and public safety.

But legislators were not able to adjourn on time Saturday. Instead, they agreed to extend their annual session and to leave Sunday after evening votes on the budget. It is their fifth extension in a decade.

The lawmakers have been struggling to overcome a $4 billion shortfall caused by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The breakthrough on the budget came when Senate negotiators agreed to eliminate many fees that they had proposed to preserve some programs. House negotiators had agreed to accept a limited number of fees, arguing that in some instances fees are no different from tax increases.

Senate negotiators had insisted that the budget include fewer cuts to elementary and secondary education than were sought by House negotiators, and the senators said they were pleased with their effort given the troubled economic outlook.

"To me this is all about damage control,'' Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) said.

The state's two-year budget will include $30 billion in general operating funds, returning state spending to 2006 levels.

Leaders of both chambers said they were confident that work on the budget would be completed in time to begin final budget votes at 5 p.m.

But the process has often become mired in last-minute disputes, and some rank-and-file members expressed mild skepticism.

On the floor of the House, Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr. (D-Northumberland) likened the optimism of legislative leaders to a second marriage: "The triumph of hope over experience."

A dozen negotiators -- six from the Senate and six from the House -- have been meeting for more than a week to resolve budget disputes.

Delegates agreed to forgo their $135-a-day payment for the overtime in recognition of the troubled economic times and the impending deep cuts to the state budget.

Senators said they saw no reason to sacrifice their pay, which is intended to cover expenses while lawmakers live away from home. Senators receive $160 a day.

"Of course," Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said when asked whether senators would accept pay. "Why not? We're here in session."

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