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Democrat’s surprise vote gives Virginia a budget

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate, with little warning and no debate, abruptly reversed course and approved a two-year, $85 billion budget bill Wednesday afternoon by a 21-19 vote — a day after Democrats in the chamber blocked one for the third time this year.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, broke ranks with his caucus to deliver the decisive vote that Republicans had desperately sought after sticking with his party three times.

The agreement prevents the possibility of a government shutdown, which had been looming since the General Assembly adjourned last month without a spending plan.

Among other items, the approved budget includes a net increase of $652.9 million for K-12 education and a net increase of $211.6 million for higher education while keeping taxes steady and eliminating a handful of proposed fee increases.

Democrats in the evenly divided 40-member upper chamber voted in bloc against the budget Tuesday after Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, informed party leadership that the state would not provide any additional money beyond the $150 million already pledged for the second leg of the 23-mile, $6 billion rail-to-Dulles project.

The party wanted the state to provide up to an additional $300 million in bonds to help mitigate rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road, which is funding most of the second phase of the project.

On a day when lawmakers were gathered in Richmond for the annual "veto day" to consider Mr. McDonnell's vetoes and legislative amendments, party leaders huddled behind closed doors at length to try to negotiate a compromise on funding the project. But with Mr. Colgan's vote, there is now no $300 million and no deal for more: He simply had a change of heart.

"I salute Sen. Chuck Colgan for his leadership, his courage, and his statesmanship," Mr. McDonnell said after the vote. "I know he's been under enormous pressure from people on both sides of this budget discussion."

Mr. McDonnell sent a letter to Mr. Colgan Wednesday assuring him of the governor's commitment to Dulles rail and working with him to advance other transportation projects.

The decisive vote came suddenly.

Lawmakers had recessed before Mr. Colgan moved to reconsider the bill that had been voted down Tuesday — a surprise, to say the least, for Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat.

"I didn't see it coming that way," he said, "and neither did anybody else."

Harry B. Blevins, Virginia Beach Republican, had left Capitol Square, to visit his wife in the hospital when it appeared there would not be 21 votes for the budget. But once the GOP learned of Mr. Colgan's decision, and with Mr. Blevins' cellphone dying, they had Virginia State Police track him down, said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican.

The budget's passage marks the end of a session dominated by a nasty dispute over power and policy. Democrats used their 20 votes to press Republicans for more equitable committee assignments, more funding for education and health care and, finally, additional money for Dulles rail and the Midtown Tunnel project in Hampton Roads. The GOP didn't budge on committee assignments, but party leaders agreed to add additional money to the budget, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday allocated $100 million to delay tolls on the Midtown Tunnel in Hampton Roads until 2014.

The stalemate forced the session to adjourn March 10 without having approved a spending plan for the next two years, only to immediately gavel into a special session to deal with it.

After the budget failed once more Tuesday, it appeared that neither side was going to give an inch — continuing uncertainty for localities planning their own budgets and portending the possibility of a partial government shutdown if a deal couldn't be reached before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Mr. McDonnell on Tuesday called the Democrats' vote "the most fiscally reckless vote I have witnessed in my 21 years in office," and Republicans assailed their counterparts across the aisle for holding up a budget over a single project.

Democrats were equally resolute, arguing that Dulles rail was crucial to the economic health not just of Northern Virginia, but the entire state.

"I thought we left the governor plenty of room to move," Mr. Saslaw said. "When he said, 'I can't find the money,' I said, 'Well, staff members of the Senate Finance Committee could.' He blew me off, essentially, saying he was not interested."

Republicans had appeared confident that they secured a vote Tuesday from Mr. Colgan, one of a handful of negotiators who helped craft the final conference report.

Mr. McDonnell met privately with Mr. Colgan, Mr. Saslaw, and Senate Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, on Tuesday and presented Mr. Colgan a letter affirming the governor's support for the project. It also contained Mr. McDonnell's insistence that he would not increase funding for the project beyond what the state previously committed.

That was enough for Mr. Colgan, but the tone enraged party leadership, which swayed the 85-year-old senator's vote from an intended "yea" to "nay" — at least for that day.

Mr. McDonnell wrote in the Tuesday letter that the state's ability to provide more money right now "is simply not possible."

"It would not be responsible to borrow new money to buy down tolls, and I cannot support taking major money from projects from other regions of the state that have already been approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board," he wrote.

The bill had easily passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

Among other items, the conference report contained the 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 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 contained $44.7 million over Mr. McDonnell's 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.

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