- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

RICHMOND Virginia's budget negotiations budged yesterday, with the Senate inching closer to the House's bigger proposal for this year's car-tax cut. But lawmakers are bracing for adjourning tomorrow without an agreement.
Four Senate and four House members have been meeting this week to reach a compromise, and the car tax is the biggest hurdle. Until yesterday, the sides had remained unchanged from the positions each chamber took a month ago.
The Senate negotiators, after saying they wouldn't go any higher than a 50 percent rebate this year on the yearly personal-property tax paid by all vehicle owners, yesterday put together a proposal that offers a 55 percent rebate this year and 70 percent next year.
But Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the House have said they can't accept less than 70 percent this year and have set that as a starting point for negotiations.
The Senate proposal was actually in the form of a new bill, introduced by Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican and the head of the Senate budget writers. The bill passed the Senate 34-6.
But it is in essence just a public relations move, since House leaders said it's too late to be considered by the House as a bill.
"It was a grandstand play. A desperation, grandstand play. A 'Hail Mary,' " said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican and the House's chief budget negotiator. "Fifty-five is nothing. We've got to go to 70 [percent]."
The proposal, though, gives the Senate a way to make its case publicly and allows senators to bypass what they saw as House negotiators' refusal to sit down and talk the issues through.
"Never have I been in a conference where one side literally refused to talk about potential compromise. Never have I been in a conference where one side literally refused to negotiate," Mr. Chichester told senators as he introduced the bill yesterday.
But House negotiators responded they had moved from their original position of 70 percent this year and 100 percent next year to 70 percent both years. The Senate has rejected that proposal.
The negotiations often seem like a dance at junior high school: Boys on one side, girls on the other, with each side occasionally sending an emissary to the middle to try to dance.
In this case, the House negotiators gathered on the ninth floor of the General Assembly office building, the senators gathered on the 10th.
But dancing has been difficult so far for lawmakers, who haven't even agreed on what music to play.
The Senate wants to go about negotiations the same way as in the past, with members from the House and Senate pairing off to work on individual areas of the budget like education or public safety, then returning with a compromise on that section of the budget. Whatever is left would be used for the car tax.
House members have insisted on solving the car-tax section first, then using the remaining revenue to fund the other priorities.
Now, both sides are beginning to show signs they are preparing for the possibility of adjourning tomorrow with no budget something unprecedented in state history, but increasingly likely.
Some lawmakers viewed the Senate's proposal yesterday as just another example of that an effort to enable senators to go back home and say they tried.
But several rank-and-file House Republicans said the Senate's treatment of the House negotiators has strengthened their resolve to stick to 70 percent. They have an expected veto from the governor on anything less than 70 percent as their backing. A veto, or leaving without a budget, would give all the control for cutting the budget and all the risk and responsibility to the governor.
The difference between the new Senate plan and the House plan is $162 million in the two-year, $50 billion budget. The Senate spends the difference on services, the House sends it back to taxpayers. For a Fairfax County family with a car valued at $15,000 and a car valued at $7,000, the administration says the House plan puts about $500 more in the family's pocket than the Senate plan.
State revenue is about 2 percent less than expected, leaving the governor and General Assembly to close the shortfall through administrative cuts.
The Senate's new plan includes a key proposal that would let the car-tax rebate go higher than 55 percent if state revenue grew more than the new estimate of 3.8 percent this year, but House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. said that's still not enough: "I don't think I want to leave any ifs, ands or buts this year."
On the hundreds of other items in the budget, the proposal takes the House and Senate budgets and splits the difference, with a slight bias in favor of Senate projects and funding requests.
It still represents millions of dollars of agency cuts included in the governor's original budget proposal from December, but restores many of the governor's cuts and increases spending beyond last year's full funding for other items.
In education, for example, the Senate budget includes teacher salary raises of 4.75 percent, beginning Jan. 1 of next year down from their original proposal of 6 percent, but higher than the House proposal of 3.5 percent.
The governor included no teacher raises but encouraged localities to give them instead. Overall, the Senate budget has about $60 million more in education spending than the governor's introduced budget, Senate staffers said.
The Senate's new proposal also restores money where the governor cut from health care, higher education and public safety.
For the Senate to introduce its bill this late required the cooperation of all 40 senators. But the first public cracks showed in the actual vote on the bill, when Sen. William "Bill" T. Bolling, Hanover Republican, spoke against the budget.
"I think we can do better in getting the car-tax reduction rate to 70 percent this year if we continue the effort to do that," he said.
The bills that change the state's requirements on petitioning for new testing of DNA evidence now go to the governor, after two identical versions passed yesterday.
A convict now would be able to petition a court to test newly found DNA evidence, or evidence for which there is now a better test than at the time of the trial. Depending on the results, a convict could then petition a court to decide if a jury, given the new evidence, would have still convicted.
Both versions included an amendment from Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, that broadened the bill to include everyone convicted of a serious felony. The original bill applied only to those who pleaded not guilty but were convicted anyway about 2 percent of convicts, Mr. Moran said.
Mr. Moran said it was important to include those who pleaded guilty to avoid the possibility of execution or a life sentence.
But prosecutors expressed concern that Mr. Moran's requirement would place a huge burden on them to put on a full case, even if the person is pleading guilty, to ensure that the trial record is complete for a judge later to review.
Still, most lawmakers were happy with the underlying bill, which changes what was the most stringent requirement in the nation for introducing exculpatory evidence in capital cases. A convict currently has only 21 days after his trial ends to produce new evidence. After that, his only real recourse is through the governor.
The effort to put a sales tax increase to referendum in Northern Virginia is now in the hands of a conference committee of three senators and three delegates.
They will try to work out an agreement, but the gulf between the House, which seems ready to accept a half-cent increase for transportation projects, and the Senate, which insists on a full-cent increase for transportation and education, may be too much for a workable compromise.

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