- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

RICHMOND — Senate Democrats for the third time this year voted down a two-year, $85 billion spending plan on Tuesday, leaving money for local governments, school systems and transportation projects across the state in limbo and portending the possibility of a partial government shutdown if the stalemate cannot be resolved.

Citing the lack of $300 million to help mitigate toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road, Democrats voted en bloc against the plan, which was the product of a conference committee that merged budget versions proposed this year by the two chambers in the General Assembly. The Senate plan included the funds, while the House version did not.

“This is nothing more than brinkmanship and partisan politics,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, disagreed.

“It’s not brinkmanship,” he said. “What it has to do with is the money for my region’s transportation problems.”

Failure to agree on a plan pushes the state closer to a partial government shutdown that could occur at the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1. Republicans have argued that a deal needs to be in place even sooner, since localities crafting their own budgets will need to determine how much financial support they can expect from the state.

Lawmakers recessed Tuesday rather than adjourning and will reconvene Wednesday. At least one prominent Democrat was skeptical that the budget impasse would be resolved during that meeting.

“It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” Mr. Saslaw said after the session ended. He noted that the assembly has blown through the end of the session without a budget in recent years and that “Western civilization’s not coming to an end.”

But Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said Tuesday was “a historically disappointing day for our commonwealth,” charging that Democrats kept moving the goalposts throughout the session on what it would take to get a positive vote on the budget.

“I cannot spend money — I cannot commit money — that I don’t have,” he told reporters outside of the executive mansion.

He said he supports the 23-mile rail-to-Dulles project but that they cannot take money away from projects elsewhere in the state to put more money into it. The administration recently provided a list of 40 projects that would have to be scrapped if the additional $300 million was diverted to Dulles rail.

Democrats wanted the money to go toward mitigating toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Seventy-five percent of the funding for the 11.4-mile second leg of the $6 billion project to extend Metro rail to Dulles is slated to come from toll-road revenues. Tolls are currently $1.50 at the main plaza and 75 cents at the entrance and exit ramps, but a full trip would reach $6.75 by 2020 and $10.75 by 2030, according to recent estimates.

Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Norment said Tuesday they had been given assurances there would be enough Democratic support in the Senate without the additional money for Dulles rail. The budget requires 21 votes to pass the chamber, which is split 20-20 between Democrats and Republicans.

Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, was absent for the vote. Democrats would not specify why he missed the vote, but his absence prevented even the possibility that Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling might reconsider his previously stated position that a lieutenant governor cannot break a tie vote on the budget.

Mr. Norment said he expected to collect 22 votes, meaning at least two Democrats would have to support the plan.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, had signed the conference report, leading Republicans to speculate that he might be the crucial swing vote to break ranks with Democrats.

At the end of the day, Mr. Colgan voted with his party.

Mr. Norment was tight-lipped about who he had expected the other crossover Democrat to be.

The spending plan for the next two years failed on a 20-19 vote, as did the “caboose bill” that revises the budget for the year ending June 30.

The two-year spending plan is technically still alive, but the caboose bill is dead. Since much of the two-year budget is contingent on what happens the rest of the fiscal year, though, the legislature is now left between a rock and a hard place.

During the regular General Assembly session that ended March 10, Senate Democrats twice hung together to reject two spending plans. On Monday, Mr. McDonnell sent a letter to Mr. Saslaw and other legislative leaders warning of the dire consequences of another failed budget vote.

“If there is no budget passed on Tuesday, there will be prompt adverse consequences on local governments and schools, as well as VDOT and other state agencies postponing contracts due to the uncertainty of funding,” he wrote.

The state Department of Transportation on Friday said that without a budget it would have to start shutting down projects across the state.

The conference report included a net increase of $652.9 million for public education, including $110 million for a flexible block grant that localities can use to address teacher retirement, inflation and pre-K program costs. It also restores $40 million out of $65 million Mr. McDonnell had proposed cutting to offset the higher cost of living of Northern Virginia teaching personnel.

The budget also contained $44.7 million over the introduced budget for health and human resources, including an additional 305 waiver slots for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to move them from institutions to community-based settings.

It also authorized a 3 percent bonus for state employees and faculty this December contingent on unspent balances and excess revenues in the current year. The bonus is estimated to cost about $77 million of general funds.

The Republican-led House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed both the caboose bill and the $85 billion spending plan.