-- The auditor for the Virginia General Assembly told lawmakers on Monday that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has used accounting maneuvers to boost the budget for his office, prompting senior House Republicans to accuse Warner of arrogance and of violating the state's budget laws.
Auditor of Public Accounts Walter J. Kucharski told members of the House Appropriations Committee that Warner used "questionable judgment" when he transferred more than $1 million from other executive agencies to pay salaries and office expenses for his staff.
"I have a problem with it," Kucharski said, noting that the practice began under other governors in the 1990s. "This is not a good practice."
Senior Republicans on the committee, who arranged for Kucharski's presentation, lashed out at Warner, saying the practice makes a mockery of the governor's reputation for fiscal integrity and budget honesty. Warner has argued for much of his term that the state should be truthful about its budget problems, no matter the public relations consequences.
"What's good for the goose is not good for the gander, I guess," said Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), a member of the budget-writing committee. "The governor has been talking about how we all have to share in the pain. In fact, that's not what we did."
Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) lamented that Warner and other governors have repeatedly ignored budget directives by the legislature.
"They have not paid any attention to this," Callahan said. "The question is whether the letter of the law is followed, which it was not."
Senior aides to Warner defended their actions, saying the practice of transferring money from other agencies has been the norm for almost a decade. They said the practice dates to 1995, when lawmakers slashed the budget for George Allen's office during a legislative spat with the Republican governor.
Since then, no governor has been willing to ask for an increase in what he spends on his staff, Finance Secretary John M. Bennett said. Bennett said Warner may still do that.
"I hope it can be a rational discussion and not one charged with emotional rhetoric," Bennett said.
The budgetary dispute between the House Republicans, who control the chamber, and the Warner administration is the first since the end of the 2004 session, when the governor successfully pushed through a tax increase over the objections of many of the committee's senior members.
House Republicans spent much of that legislative session on the defensive over tax and spending issues. But Monday, they aggressively pressed their case that the governor had used gimmicks to boost his spending.
Kucharski said Warner sought and received approval from the General Assembly to increase the budget for the secretary of the commonwealth in 2002 and 2003 by raising the fees that offices charge someone to become a notary. That money went to help balance the budget.
Warner later transferred the amount of the budget increase for the secretary of the commonwealth to his own office staff, essentially taking the money out of the pot available to all state agencies, said Kucharski, who is up for reappointment by the General Assembly in February.
Republican lawmakers expressed outrage over what they said called "a scheme" to spend money without the legislature's approval.
Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) likened the governor's actions to the Enron scandal and called them "absolutely wild." At one point, he asked whether the transfers to the governor's office reduced the amount of money available to all state agencies.
"Yes, sir," responded a committee staff member.
"Dear God," Wardrup said.
Committee Democrats accused Wardrup and the other Republicans of exaggerating the issue to score political points. The $1 million involved, Democrats said, is a sliver of the state's $60 billion two-year budget.
Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria) said she doubted Republicans would have agreed to raise the governor's budget if he had asked.
"There is a little political reality that needs to be considered here," she said.