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  Budget Surplus Doesn't Buy Bipartisanship

By Donald P. Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 1999; Page B09

RICHMOND, Feb. 10—Although a budget surplus of nearly $1 billion will allow the Virginia General Assembly to provide tax cuts and pork-barrel projects for just about every interest group in this election year, the money hasn't been enough to soothe the partisan wrangling that has resulted from an evenly divided legislature.

Today, within hours of completing the annual "crossover" frenzy, in which each chamber finished work on bills it originated, Democrats and Republicans took turns chastising each other for not doing enough for the taxpayers, who will go to the polls in November and choose occupants for all 140 legislative seats.

Republicans, who control the Senate by two votes and enjoy virtual parity in the House, contend that Democrats proposed tax breaks and spending initiatives that are irresponsible.

The Democrats counter that the GOP is insensitive to working-class people, citing the modest tax cut and Republican opposition to some Democrat-sponsored health care bills.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) got into the wrangling today, saying in a statement that he is "disappointed that the legislature refused to appropriate lottery funds to localities for education."

Although both parties backed legislation to return lottery profits to localities, the Democratic plan largely would limit spending to school construction; Gilmore and the Republicans favor allowing local governments to decide how to spend the money.

Dozens of issues considered Tuesday produced straight party-line votes. "You saw 21-19 over and over again" on the Senate scoreboard, said Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun).

Mims blamed the minority Democrats for party-line votes in which the Republicans rejected Democratic initiatives on health care and then adopted their own version.

"There was a cohesion yesterday that reflected a decision by the other party to make an issue that had had a great deal of bipartisanship a partisan gauntlet," Mims said.

In the House, where the lineup is 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one GOP-leaning independent, two attempts by Democrats to pass a larger and faster food tax cut failed Tuesday night on identical 51 to 49 votes.

Not only did all of the Republicans stick together on the issue, but thanks to a promise by Gilmore to put extra money in the budget for two traditionally black colleges, Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) bolted and voted with the GOP.

"There would have been grave consequences" had the Democratic plan passed, said Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax), who admitted she was practicing a campaign phrase.

But Sen. Madison E. Marye (D-Montgomery) said that "with a $1 billion surplus, it's shameful that the poor and unfortunate . . . will have to wait until next year" to benefit from a food tax reduction.

Today's bipartisan crankiness may have resulted from the late hours lawmakers kept Tuesday.

In the wee hours of this morning, the "Choose Life" license plate sought by Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) and anti-abortion forces was revived, changed to say "Choose Adoption" and passed in a 70-28 vote. The House narrowly had rejected the original version earlier that evening.

The "Choose Adoption" license plate, which still must pass the Senate, would cost $25 more than the standard license plate; $15 of that would go to programs that encourage pregnant women to give birth.

In other late-night action, the Senate approved deregulation of the state's electric utilities and approved several proposals to curb out-of-state trash, including a ban on garbage barges and imposing caps and fees of daily dumping at landfills.

Staff writers R.H. Melton and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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