Virginia lawmakers got nervous when a budget deadlock over $1.25 million for a horse center threatened to delay their Saturday adjournment. They got even antsier when budget negotiations stalled over what to do with the state's weird-looking technology center near Dulles International Airport.
Today, the Republican floor leader of the House of Delegates delivered the truly scary news, warning colleagues to have enough clean underwear for -- gasp! -- a possible Sunday session.
"Things are going a little slower than we had hoped," said Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), sounding like a school principal breaking bad news to an auditorium of fidgety children.
In the waning days of the 2003 legislative session, it's the little things that are gumming up the works of Virginia's $25 billion-a-year budget, forcing negotiators from the House and Senate to sit down for the fourth straight day to reach a spending accord that will send the legislature home on time.
"I thought we'd get it last night or the night before, and it's still not done," grumbled the chief House negotiator, Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax).
Even in a compressed 46-day session like this year's, hammering out a budget is a ritual with its own rules, involving some of the most experienced members of the General Assembly, who -- despite their seniority -- spend much of their time not talking to each other.
Instead, budget conferees communicate largely through late-night notes and mini-conferences that produce compromises too flimsy to survive into the next day.
For example, Callahan and two senators dickered until about midnight Wednesday over the future of the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, which since 1987 has occupied an upside-down glass trapezoid on a hill overlooking Dulles airport. House members wanted to preserve it as a magnet for research dollars, but senators said the agency produces too little to justify its annual $7.5 million cost to the state treasury.
"It's the catalyst of the high-tech industry," Callahan said in a later interview.
Countered Senate conferee Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William): "CIT has always had an image problem. It's never been able to define itself."
The two sides said they were trying to fashion a compromise that would keep the center afloat for the short term but require it to be self-sustaining within five to seven years.
Conferees were also struggling with a subsidy that House members want to give the Virginia Horse Center, a state-chartered facility in Lexington that until the redistricting of legislative seats was represented by Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), 74, a budget conferee who with 40 years in the House is the longest-serving lawmaker.
The horse center has received about $7 million in state aid in recent years, mostly for debt service payments, but senators have balked at the expense, much as they are resisting an additional $3.6 million that delegates want to confer on several non-state agencies.
House members say that without the new money, the horse center could go under and the state would lose a world-class equestrian center that attracts thousands of visitors a year. Most budget watchers expect the House and Senate to split the difference on the appropriation; $600,000 or so would allow the horse center to make a crucial debt payment July 1.
As with any negotiations, the budget conference can be intensely personal, colored by long-held grudges or fresh insults from the current session.
Suspicions still linger two years after the politically embarrassing budget impasse between then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and House Republicans on one side and Senate Republicans and their allies from the Democratic Party on the other. The two sides battled for months over the scheduled phaseout of the car tax, a repeal that is still frozen at 70 percent.
Callahan, a delegate since 1968, said he felt slighted by the chilly reception that his proposed state constitutional amendment on state spending received the other day in the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by a chief Senate conferee, John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), a member of that chamber since 1978.
In a breach of legislative courtesy, not a single senator made a motion to pass or defeat the bill, Callahan said.
"It was disrespectful," Callahan said. "They know their manners are bad. Who am I to play Miss Manners with them?"
The optimists around the state Capitol said they were confident that the House and Senate would ensure adjournment on Saturday by coming to terms tonight, though House conferee James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax) cracked that it might require "a snowball fight at 20 paces."
Added Colgan: "One of the biggest impediments we have is just plain old stubbornness."