- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

RICHMOND Budgets passed by the House of Delegates and state Senate balance the state's fiscal books without raising taxes, relying on fees and funding cuts to close the $2.1 billion hole in the state's $52 billion two-year proposal.
"This is by far the leanest, most pared-back budget package we have ever had the responsibility to craft," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Fredericksburg Republican. "We are doing nothing more than damage control."
Lawmakers passed budgets that propose increasing the cost of driver's licenses and alcohol sold at state-run stores to restore some basic public services. The Senate version passed 37-3 Thursday afternoon, and the House version passed 77-19 Thursday night. Both bills go to a conference committee, which will have to iron out the differences before the Feb. 22 deadline.
The cost of a standard driver's license would increase from $15 to $20, a commercial license would increase from $30 to $35 under the House budget. The Senate version calls for increasing the cost of renewing a suspended or revoked license from $30 to $45.
The additional revenue would pay for restoring services at the Department of Motor Vehicles, including, under the House proposal, Wednesday service hours.
However, Democrats are saying the fees are taxes in disguise.
"You can call them fees, but essentially they are all taxes," said Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat.
Republicans "kill all my tax increases, yet they are putting up all their own," said Delegate Mitchell Van Yahres, Charlottesville Democrat.
Mr. Van Yahres had several tax proposals rejected earlier in the session, including one to end the car-tax refunds.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican, told lawmakers that voting against the fees, which he called modest, would unravel the budget process.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, submitted his budget Dec. 20, and the amendments passed this week go toward fixing his budget.
In recent weeks, members of the Senate and House finance committees have given Mr. Warner high marks for his efforts but said their proposals were slightly better.
"The budget, as introduced, did a pretty fair job of addressing the shortfall," Mr. Chichester said. "Our recommended package of actions attempts to smooth off some of the rough edges we found."
But Mr. Callahan noted that Mr. Warner was not helping the situation with his recent comments implying that lawmakers were not busy addressing the budget crisis.
"For those who receive their information through the governor's office, you would think we spend our time braiding hair and betting on cockfights," Mr. Callahan said in reference to some of the more unusual bills debated this session.
Senate and House committees have recommended reopening the 12 DMV branches and rehiring workers. However, the senators and delegates disagree about whether to restore all the services, including Wednesday hours at several branches, that were cut from the DMV in October.
Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Chatham Republican and chairman of the transportation subcommittee on finance, recently said the money to restore Wednesday hours had been put elsewhere and that this was the best the lawmakers could do.
"You are going to see the closest thing to full service that we can find today, restored as quickly as possible," Mr. Hawkins said.
There are other issues that differentiate the two bills as well.
The Senate budget would give state workers and teachers a 2 percent raise. The House version would increase pay by 2.5 percent for state workers only.
The House Appropriations Committee recommended raising the price of alcohol 2.4 percent, which would generate about $12.3 million in annual revenue going toward services for mentally disabled adults. This is in addition to the 2.6 percent increase proposed by Mr. Warner, bringing the increase to 5 percent.
Lawmakers in both chambers said they did not expect the differences to dominate the conference committee proceedings, and they are closer on most issues than they have been in the past.
Democrats also restated their opposition yesterday to cutting money from the Project Discovery program, which helps keep at-risk high school students in school to better prepare them for college. The program cost the state $849,060 last year. By a vote of 60-37 in the House, the funding was eliminated.
"Project Discovery helps sponsor activities to help motivate students to do well academically," said Delegate Flora D. Crittenden, Newport News Democrat.
But Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican, said guidance counselors and teachers can often provide the same services.
"This is essentially an enhanced guidance counselor" program, he said, adding that trips to see World Cup soccer games at RFK Stadium were "noble" but had nothing to do with improving academics.

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