Republican lawmakers announced today that they had found $17.4 million to restore all service hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but Gov. Mark R. Warner said they employed "curious math" to achieve that election-year goal.
As their budget quarrel escalated, Warner accused GOP legislators of misplaced priorities, and lawmakers retorted that the Democrat did not understand the General Assembly's machinations.
Both sides have been flooded with complaints about long DMV lines and agreed that reopening the closed offices was a priority, but they disagreed sharply on how to make that happen.
In October, Warner eliminated Wednesday service at more than 60 DMV sites and closed 12 centers, including four serving Northern Virginia, but he announced this month that he was reversing part of that decision and would reopen the 12 centers shortly. Leaders of the House of Delegates said they would go even further by restoring Wednesday service as well.
"These are priorities that, I think, are in common with our support for core areas that directly impact the lives of so many Virginians," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).
Added Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax): "DMV affects everybody in Virginia that owns a car or has a driver's license. So we have to respond to the needs of all Virginians."
Howell and Callahan refused to say where the money would come from to restore the DMV to its pre-November status. They promised to give details Sunday, when the legislature's money committees finish tinkering with Warner's plan to close the final $1.2 billion of a roughly $6 billion budget shortfall.
State senators are also eager to reopen the closed DMV offices, but if they quibble with House counterparts on the Wednesday reopenings, those differences will have to be hammered out in a budget conference before the legislature's Feb. 22 adjournment.
In a sign of increasingly strained relations with Warner, Callahan took what for him was the unusual step of chiding the governor for criticism about the legislature's priorities this session. The first three weeks have been strongly flavored by the politics of the Nov. 4 elections, when all 140 General Assembly seats will be on the ballot.
Callahan said Warner's remarks "clearly demonstrate the lack of knowledge he has about the Appropriations Committee budget process. In fact, since Dec. 20, members . . . have been working diligently on the budget."
Warner, appearing on his monthly radio show in Richmond and talking later with reporters, said lawmakers appeared to be preoccupied with matters related more to their political survival than with long-range problems such as the budget crisis or the governor's plan to consolidate vast sections of state government.
"One of my critiques would be, I wish they'd spend a little bit more time talking about reforming state government than some of the things they've spent their time on," Warner said on WRVA radio. "In the last couple of days they've, you know, debated dogfighting, cockfighting, what kind of Vietnamese flag should be honored. . . . "
"It seems to me that those are not the most pressing issues that Virginians are caring about," Warner said.
Warner also took the GOP legislative majority to task -- and by implication, some Democratic defectors -- for advocating the repeal of Virginia's estate tax, which provides about $130 million annually to the state treasury. And the governor said he awaited the details of what he called the "curious math" of restoring DMV funding.
"I want to see if it can be done responsibly," he said. According to Warner, the annual cost of restoring the funding actually exceeds $20 million.