- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

RICHMOND | The Virginia House and Senate have passed widely different versions of the state’s two-year budget, setting up negotiations between a handful of lawmakers.

The Senate on Wednesday passed its version 36-4, using anticipated federal stimulus money to restore funding for crucial services.

The Senate uses $216 million in stimulus money to plug holes in health care services, education and public safety funding that had been carved out by a $3 billion budget shortfall. Another $800 million will be used to reduce further cuts in education and public safety, but that money comes with restrictions not yet known.

The House voted 66-22 to stick with its version, which does not include stimulus money.

The move Wednesday expedites the beginning of negotiations between a small group of lawmakers from both chambers, which will go on over the next week before the General Assembly adjourns Feb. 28.

The Senate chose last week to ignore a self-imposed deadline to finish work on its version of the budget so it could wait for two critical pieces of information: January revenue figures and how much Virginia would get from the nearly $800 billion stimulus package.

The House passed its version, acknowledging it would need major revisions.

On Friday, Gov. Tim Kaine announced that Virginia tax collections for January were down 15 percent, the worst year-to-date decrease in state revenues on record.

It was the sixth consecutive monthly decline in general tax receipts, and it put the state 5.5 percent short of anticipated revenue used to construct the two-year budget last year.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, lowered the official estimate of state revenue by $821 million on Monday, but by then state lawmakers knew that would be offset by about $1 billion from the stimulus package Congress passed Friday.

Another nearly $3 billion outside of the state budget will flow directly to residents and local governments.

Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, said waiting until lawmakers had all the information paid off because it settled contentious arguments over what funding reductions to make.

Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican, agreed that lawmakers learn more every day about how the stimulus package can help the state.

“We are every day continuing to work on minimizing the reductions that the governor put in his budget, and I think that’s good for all of us,” he said.