February 22, 2012
Chances for a bipartisan accord on a Senate version of the budget by Thursday's deadline grew bleak Tuesday after Senate Republicans dismissed a Democratic proposal to reshuffle Senate committees in exchange for the necessary votes.
The dispute is fallout from a partisan fight over power sharing in an evenly split Senate where Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast a bitterly disputed tie-breaking 21st vote that gave the GOP the majority, even though Democrats and Republicans each hold 20 seats.
Democrats controlled the Senate the past four years until Republicans negated their two-seat advantage in November's elections. Democrats clamored for power-sharing similar an arrangement in 1996 that gave Democrats and Republicans parity on committees overseen by co-chairmen from each party. Democrats argued unsuccessfully that Bolling, who is not a senator but a member of the executive branch of government, could not vote on giving the GOP Senate control.
Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw and Democratic Caucus chairman A. Donald McEachin on Friday proposed Democratic and Republican co-chairs of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, with Republicans chairing all other committees.
"We believe that is fair and in keeping with the traditions and customs of the Senate," they wrote.
In a stinging rejection, Senate Republican Leader Thomas K. Norment said he won't "link the budget to partisan, political pressures" and would consider Democratic votes against the budget to be "deliberate obstructionist behavior."
"...(I)t was disheartening to read your letter and see there were absolutely no policy concerns expressed, only raw partisan, political objectives having absolutely nothing to do with the budget," Norment wrote in a letter dated Monday and released to journalists Tuesday.
Without at least one Democrat siding with them in Thursday's floor vote, the Republicans can't muster the necessary majority to pass their plan for funding state government for the two years beginning July 1. Bolling is forbidden by the Virginia Constitution from breaking a tied Senate vote on budget issues, and the bill dies on a tie vote.
Asked Tuesday afternoon to assess the likelihood of resolving the standoff with the Republicans within 48 hours, Saslaw replied: "Zero."
"We're trying hard to ask our Democratic friends to separate their hurt feelings about politics and the organization fight and our folks to separate their hurt feelings about (Democratic-led Senate) redistricting and the election last year because none of that has anything to do with the most important document that's before the General Assembly this year, and that's the budget," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter Stosch, R-Henrico.
"You can't superimpose a logical document like a budget onto an illogical political dispute," he said. "It simply will not fit."
A defeat Thursday for the Senate budget isn't necessarily fatal to the eventual enactment of a budget. A House version of the budget is still available. But it is a troubling portent for the goal of passing a budget in the 16 days left before the scheduled March 10 adjournment of the 2012 legislature.
If Senate Democrats won't accept the Senate version of the budget, they will find only more to dislike in the House version, particularly the rerouting of about $54 million a year in sales tax revenue from the general fund to transportation.
An unresolved partisan standoff would create a long-running procedural meltdown like those of 2004 and 2006, years in which unresolved disputes delayed final enactment of a budget until mid-May and late June, respectively. The latter came frightfully close to shutting down state operations, but Virginia has never failed to pass a new two-year budget before the July 1 start of a fiscal year.