RICHMOND — The General Assembly will end its 60-day session on Saturday without finishing its most important work – passing a two-year state budget.
The legislature will adjourn Saturday and immediately convene a special session to deal with the budget. But the entire General Assembly won’t return to the Capitol for at least a week, giving budget negotiators time to work toward reaching an accord on a new state spending plan.
“It will allow a period of time for some emotions to cool,”’ said Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County. “I think all of us are anxious to get back home and see what kind of feedback we’re getting.”
The budget has been stalled by a partisan rift in the state Senate, where Democrats have twice blocked passage of a two-year $85 billion spending plan. Democrats remain bitter that Republicans have taken organizational control of the Senate and they want more of their priorities included in the final version of the state budget.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter Stosch, R-Henrico County, said this morning that a special session will give budget-writers more time to analyze spending requests that Senate Democrats outlined earlier this week in a letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell. Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, said this morning that some progress has been made, but he declined to discuss specifics.
McDonnell said Democrats needlessly delayed passage of a budget by waiting until the final week of the session to spell out the issues they want addressed in the spending plan.
“This obviously will raise the costs of the legislative session in your pay and your staff, which is paid for by the taxpayers of Virginia, an outcome which could have been prevented had you engaged in this discussion sooner,” McDonnell wrote in a letter to Saslaw and Sen. Donald McEachin, the chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Transportation funding remains a key friction point between the Republican governor and Senate Democrats. McDonnell wants to divert an additional portion of state sales tax revenue from the general fund to transportation, but Democrats contend that the shift will drain funds from education, public safety and health care programs that rely on general fund dollars. Democrats want McDonnell to sign a bill that would index the gasoline tax to inflation to generate transportation revenue, but the governor has no appetite for the proposal.
“You and I know there is no legislative consensus on this proposal, and I seriously doubt that the citizens of the Commonwealth would support any policy that increases gas prices at this time,” McDonnell wrote.
Democrats also want Senate Republicans to give them greater representation on certain Senate committees in exchange for their votes on a budget plan. Republicans seized organizational control of the Senate last month with the help of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote, and established GOP majorities on all but one Senate committee. Democrats argue that the committee structure should better reflect the Senate’s partisan division.
“If we don’t fix the committee structure, then we’ll back next year with the same problem,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, referring to the divisive fights over social issues that took place in the Senate this winter.
Edwards said a cooling off period could help lawmakers forge a budget deal. Norment said lawmakers can benefit from going home and hearing directly from their constituents about the urgency of getting a budget deal done.
“It’s one thing about emails and letters and stuff, but it’s something totally different when you see someone in the grocery store, or the church or the PTA meeting,” Norment said.
Some of the loudest feedback lawmakers get may come from local governments and school boards that are attempting to prepare their own budgets without knowing how much state aid they will receive.
“We need to have some kind of budget document as quickly as possible for planning purposes,” Dean Lynch, the deputy executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties.
The budget impasse also is slowing the General Assembly’s appointment of judges, because the House and Senate have not agreed on how many judicial vacancies will be funded.
– Michael Sluss