Virginia Budget Dies in Partisan Stalemate

April 17, 2012

For the third time this year, the state's two-year budget has died in the Senate's partisan crossfire, risking shutdown of state government operations and construction projects and leaving local government budgets in limbo.

Democrats want $300 million to extend Washington's Metro service to Dulles International Airport. Governor Bob McDonnell has committed to half of that money. In a press conference McDonnell said the project would only benefit some not all Virginians.

"To get to this point, some 95 to 100 days after the commencement of the session and still have no budget and have it all be because of one project in one area of the state, is simply not responsible," said Governor Bob McDonnell.

A conference report on the $85 billion spending bill died on a 20-19 vote Tuesday as Democrats balked in a dispute with Republicans over funding for a high-priority transit project in northern Virginia.

The chamber's 20 Republicans voted for it. Nineteen Democrats voted against it, with Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, inexplicably leaving Capitol Square. Because it failed to garner a 21-vote majority, the bill does not pass.

Yet a remote chance for a last-minute revival of the budget bill remained because the Senate recessed until Wednesday rather than adjourning. The move preserves the opportunity to reconsider — and perhaps pass the spending plan at that time.

"We are very close to having a very good budget. We just need to work a little harder and we will be able to get it," said David Toscano, House Minority Leader.

Senate Democratic leaders say Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell didn't budge on their demands for more money for the high-priority northern Virginia transit project. They want $300 million for the project to extend Washington Metro rail service to Dulles International Airport. McDonnell and the GOP have committed only to half that amount.

The current budget is set to expire in 2½ months. Without a new budget, $2.25 one-way tolls on a 14-mile road linking the Beltway and the airport could double by 2014 and triple within six years.

"Why do people in my part of the state feel abused? It's because of stuff like this," said Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, as debate proceeded on the spending plan.

At least one Republican from the Capital Beltway region appealed for more support for the project.

"This is a project critical to northern Virginia, but it's even more critical to Virginia because northern Virginia is the economic engine for this state," said Del. Thomas D. Rust, R-Fairfax County.
PHOTO: A House Appropriations Committee staffer reaches for a budget briefing handout during a budget briefing at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, April 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A House Appropriations Committee staffer reaches for a budget briefing handout during a budget briefing at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, April 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

House Republicans, who overwhelmingly support the budget, adopted the conference report on a vote of 77-19. In the Senate, however, prospects for passage darkened after Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Donald McEachin huddled with McDonnell.

"Doesn't look good right now," McEachin said afterward.

Saslaw, scowling, said McDonnell told him he would not sweeten funding for the Dulles project.

"He says he's not going to transfer money from projects," Saslaw said. "I guess somebody could explain to me the need for a beltway around Charlottesville."

Unless there's an unexpected reversal on Wednesday, Virginia will find itself without a new budget just 10½ weeks before the old one expires. The Virginia Department of Transportation, in an unprecedented move, already has sent letters to highway contractors to prepare to suspend work as early as next month if a new budget is not passed.

Cities, counties and towns are in the process of determining how much the state budget will send their way or force them to spend. Mayors, councils and boards of supervisors statewide are struggling with cost increases for legislation intended to shore up Virginia's underfunded public employee pension system and unsure whether it will require real estate tax increases, cuts in services or a mix of both.

The conference report would have provided a 2 percent pay raise next year for state personnel, faculty at public colleges and universities and state-supported local employees — their first since 2007 — and a 3 percent bonus in December.

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