Va. Budget Committees Agree on Road Funding
By R.H. Melton
RICHMOND, Feb. 7 – Budget drafters in the General Assembly agreed today to spend $104 million this year to ease some of Northern Virginia's chronic traffic headaches and used a record surplus to lavish millions more in tax cuts, social programs and pork barrel projects across the state.
Toiling for hours on a Sunday afternoon to beat a looming deadline for action on their own bills, money committees in the House of Delegates and Senate drafted budgets that generally give Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) what he wanted in a year when politicians of every stripe are savoring a vigorous economy.
"The climb this year has been easier than some," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Stanley C. Walker (D-Norfolk), Callahan's counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, agreed, hailing the "unprecedented" $868‚million surplus in Gilmore's original spending plan, which has already grown by $80‚million to nearly $1 billion.
Lawmakers in both chambers confirmed a weekend agreement that would marry two disparate regions of the state – the Washington suburbs and the Route 58 corridor of rural Southside Virginia – into a partnership giving $104‚million in bonding authority to each area for badly needed transit improvements.
There is sharp disagreement about the source of the money – senators want the government's general fund to pay, and delegates want to dip into a special transportation trust fund – but there is consensus about the need to deliver the money this year.
Even Gilmore, who has been wary of the deal, may be warming to it. "Will they get their $104‚million?" asked one senior administration official who asked not to be identified by name. "Yep."
Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), Walker's co-chairman, said he met with a key colleague today to finalize the agreement, which will send far less money than the two regions had once anticipated. He also decried the House's plan to use the transit trust fund, saying dipping into that would hurt every other area of the state that uses the fund.
Ronald L. Tillett, Gilmore's top financial adviser, pronounced the administration generally satisfied with the legislature's work today. "The economy is going strong, and that allows government to give money back to the people," Tillett said. "Most agree, directionally, with where we're going."
Essentially, lawmakers tinkered today with Gilmore's 1998-2000 budget of more than $40‚billion, providing what Walker called "mid-course corrections to the basic fiscal blueprint, which is already in place."
In doing so, House and Senate budgeteers shuffled about $100‚million, transfers that will have to be reconciled in conference committees before the assembly's scheduled Feb. 27 adjournment.
With so much money in hand, legislators could pump into their pet programs even more money than Gilmore had requested. For instance, on the Senate side, members called for $40‚million to be spent on the mentally disabled, on top of the $41‚million Gilmore sought as a centerpiece of his spending plan. Similarly, both houses want to boost teacher salaries, with the House asking for $52‚million to pay the state's share of a 6 percent pay raise, which would put them on a par with other state employees.
Fiscal experts in the House and Senate sounded a common theme today in bemoaning the relatively flat funding for public colleges, for years the crown jewels of Virginia state government.
Del. Alan A. Diamonstein, of Newport News, a senior House Democrat and steadfast supporter of state universities, said many members "are very disappointed that in this year of a $900‚million surplus, we could not do more for higher education."
"Our commitment to higher education has not been met today," Diamonstein added.
Minutes later, on another floor of the General Assembly building, Walker registered the same complaint. Gilmore's proposed cut in university tuitions, Walker argued, "does not address the fundamental needs of our colleges" for modern equipment, new buildings, library materials and routine maintenance.
In a shot at Gilmore, who used his first year in office to call for greater fiscal accountability at Virginia colleges, the House committee adopted budget language with a decidedly political flavor, banning Gilmore from handcuffing the secretive foundations so vital to university fund-raising.
"It is the intent of the General Assembly that the independence of the foundations of the public colleges and universities be respected and not interfered with in any way," the House committee said.
That caught the attention of Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a Gilmore ally on the appropriations panel who asked, "Who, in fact, would be responsible for auditing those funds?" A staff member replied he had no ready answer.
There were goodies for nearly every jurisdiction in the state in the Senate and House plans. Susan E. Mittereder, the veteran lobbyist in Richmond for Fairfax County government, was keeping an eye out for $15‚million for local police and as much as $30‚million to expand the detention center in Fairfax City.
Also in the House committee, lawmakers said they wanted $13‚million more for historic landmarks, far less than the $63‚million in 171 requests they reviewed, but plenty of pork for folks back home.
"It's more active this year because the budget's bigger than normal," Mittereder said of all the funding requests.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company