- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

RICHMOND — State government passed a milestone for fiscal tardiness Sunday: Never in modern Virginia history has the legislature gone so late without passing a new budget.

Now local governments, state agencies and the people and companies who do business with both wonder whether lawmakers will miss their ultimate deadline and leave state government unfunded after June 30.

The Senate’s insistence on new, sustainable revenue sources to pay for the first major transportation initiative in 20 years versus the House’s tough stance against new statewide taxes yields a historic standoff with no end in sight.

While the House and Senate yesterday appeared poised to pass, by week’s end, a “caboose budget” that wraps up this fiscal year, there has been no progress toward a new biennial budget to fund government through June 2008.

“The primary function of a legislature is to get that budget out, and for the Senate to try to sit there and blackmail us, it’s ridiculous,” Delegate Johnny S. Joannou, Portsmouth Democrat, said.

Mr. Joannou is the only Democrat among six delegates designated to resolve differences over the budget with a five-man Senate negotiating team. Since March, the two teams have met a handful of times and have nothing yet to show for it.

So would the Senate risk a constitutional crisis and at least a partial state government shutdown to secure new, long-term money sources for roads, rails and transit?

Senators winced and cringed at the prospect.

“I happen to be of a belief that constitutionally, state government is not going to come to a screeching halt, and there would be a continuity without the interruption of services to the general public,” Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, said.

“When I’ve been talking to groups, I really haven’t said the House is wrong, the Senate is right. I say to them: Here’s the issue as I see it, and the question is whether or not it’s important enough to bring it to a head,” Mr. Norment said.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who shares many of the Senate’s transportation goals, has asked his staff to develop a plan that would allow him to operate government on an emergency basis should the legislative deadlock persist into July.

But exactly what would Mr. Kaine do? He is not saying.

Delacey Skinner, the administration’s communications director, said Mr. Kaine has considered how much notice people would need to be able to operate state agencies.

“But there are not any set deadlines established externally or internally,” Miss Skinner said. Anything beyond that “would fall under areas we’re not talking about.”

Cities and counties already are feeling a cash crunch from the record budget delays. Localities seeking more state reimbursements for outlays they have made under the Comprehensive Services Act for families of troubled youth are finding their requests stalled by the lack of a caboose budget.

“Local governments will react to the dictates of the legislature and governor, and localities will have to carefully scrutinize their cash flow and manage their business,” said Michael L. Edwards, the Virginia Association of Counties’ deputy director for legislative affairs.

But localities differ widely in population and economics, Mr. Edwards said, meaning some will be hurt more than others by a continuing budget crisis.

Two years ago, the legislature approved a final budget May 7, after an unprecedented 115 days in session, amid loud public cries for action and as Gov. Mark Warner’s administration began ominously — and conspicuously — mapping contingencies for shutting down the government.

This year, the problem is met with a yawn.

“The issue still seems to people to be some distance away. The crisis feeling probably hits closer to July 1. Maybe people think — perhaps too optimistically — that the two Republican parties in the legislature can get together and settle this,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

But just because there is no outcry this year, politicians shouldn’t mistake it for political apathy about transportation, particularly in the state’s most chronically congested regions, Mr. Farnsworth said.

“These are people who spend two or more hours each way sitting in traffic going to and coming from work, so they don’t have time to go to town hall meetings or public hearings. But they do vote,” Mr. Farnsworth said.

The House of Delegates is scheduled to meet in full session tomorrow. The Senate will hold a full business session Friday.

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