House conferees agreed today to give Virginia teachers modest salary increases but were negotiating with the Senate over how to pay for those and other election-year budget items before the General Assembly adjourns Saturday.
As Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) again urged legislative leaders to act with fiscal restraint, budget conferees from the House of Delegates and state Senate settled in for potentially contentious talks on competing plans for state spending through the coming year.
While the basic blueprints were roughly the same, the two sides remained far apart on many of the details, including a funding source for the 2 percent raise for about 56,000 teachers, a proposal first advanced by the Senate.
The Senate proposed a blend of cash and $8 million in state lottery proceeds to pay for the $24 million salary increase, while the House countered with a proposal that used cash and about $8 million from community block grants for education.
"It's the right thing to do," said Education Committee Chairman James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), a career educator and member of the House budget negotiating team. "We all want to do the same thing, basically."
Lawmakers are eager to leave Richmond this week with a teacher pay raise that they can present to voters in the fall, when all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.
Because of the budget crisis, the spending plan that Warner sent to the General Assembly included no pay raises for teachers or other public employees, and he again cautioned lawmakers that they would only be partially funding an even larger long-term spending commitment if they endorsed the 2 percent increase.
"We've got to have a budget that's truly fiscally conservative," Warner told reporters, not a spending plan based on a "wing and a prayer."
Other sticking points that could slow budget negotiations include whether to fund the House's plan for $3.6 million in local projects, including $275,000 for the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center in Fairfax County, as well as the Senate's $7.5 million plan to hire 100 correctional officers.
The two sides are scheduled to resolve their differences by midnight Tuesday, but negotiations could run long. Some leading lawmakers said that if budget talks proceed smoothly, the assembly may even adjourn a day early.
In other action, a House committee recommended paying $500,000 today to a man who spent 15 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, $1 million less than the Senate proposed giving him and an amount that infuriated family members and senators.
The House Appropriations Committee said that the state's budget problems prevented them from paying more than $500,000 to Marvin Lamont Anderson, wrongly convicted of rape in 1982.
Committee members also said that they were concerned about a "flood" of similar claims because DNA evidence will exonerate other prisoners. A Suffolk man was released from prison last week after serving 21 years for a rape he did not commit.
"We know we're going to be flooded with claims of this type," said Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford). "We have to have some policy, some parameters or we're going to be in never-never land."
Anderson's family members, who testified before the committee about the "nightmare" they have lived for the past 20 years, said after the vote that they had been denied justice because they are black. They brought up Jeffrey David Cox, a white man who received $750,000 from the General Assembly last year after spending 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and wondered why Anderson did not get at least as much for more time served.
"I think they're racist," said Joan Anderson, Marvin Anderson's mother. "I just can't understand how do you justify giving one man $750,000 and another $500,000. It makes me think there still is no justice in Virginia."
Joan Anderson told committee members about how she lost her job with the Hanover County school system shortly after Anderson's conviction, and soon after that lost her home. She said she has spent the past 20 years working to free her son and clear his name.
Garnetta Bishop, Anderson's sister, said that "to limit it to such a small amount of money for the amount of time he served is just as unjust" as his conviction.
Delegates proposed giving Anderson $200,000 immediately and $300,000 over 10 years, while senators are seeking $500,000 now plus $1 million over 10 years. The House of Delegates must approve the bill, and if they do, a conference committee of senators and delegates will negotiate a final amount to give Anderson.
Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond), who sponsored the legislation to compensate Anderson, said he was upset about today's decision but that he had "confidence in the conference committee" to not "make the whole Commonwealth of Virginia look bad.
"One thing about African Americans," Lambert said, "is that we've been through this kind of thing all our lives, and you say when is it going to end, when am I going to catch a break?"