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McDonnell to Senate Democrats: Get it together

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Senate Democrats traded blows Thursday over the state budget in sharply worded letters rife with accusations of political gamesmanship.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, wrote to Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax and caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin of Henrico saying he appreciates the open dialogue his administration has built with both parties over the past several years. He said he's met privately with many senators to discuss the budget in advance of proposals scheduled to be released Sunday by the General Assembly's money committees.

"I have previously asked you and many of your Democratic colleagues for input on what your budget concerns are and your specific ideas and plan are for doing what we are all constitutionally obligated to do: pass a balanced budget on time,” he wrote in a letter dated Tuesday. “With few exceptions I have had little feedback."

Mr. McDonnell then asked for written feedback to him and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican.

"I trust that certain comments made by some members that your caucus will not approve any budget for partisan reasons is not reflective of the statesmanship normally seen in your caucus," Mr. McDonnell continued. "We must work together now to get our job done on time. I look forward to your response."

The Senate budget must receive at least a modicum of bipartisan support, as Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking authority in the evenly split chamber does not extend to revenue bills. The governor released his own two-year, $85 billion budget proposal in December.

"The suggestion [by] the governor that partisanship somehow is involved in this is insulting," Mr. McEachin said. "My colleagues and I were elected, we showed up for work on day one, we've been consistent in what we've said about the budget from day one, and it's time for the governor to stop playing politics and get on with the business of writing a budget that is inclusive of all Virginians."

A letter from Mr. Saslaw and Mr. McEachin dated Wednesday was hand-delivered to the governor's office at 2:45 p.m. Thursday. They thanked the governor for his "kind note" and said they were eager to support a budget that offers real transportation solutions, provides money for education and preserves the social safety net and public safety.

"I would like to emphasize that our concerns about the budget are not partisan, but substantive," they wrote. "Immediately after the election, when we could have and should have been coming together, you and the rest of your party engaged in harsh partisan rhetoric. Therefore, I find your concerns about partisanship to be rather ironic."

The letter went on to say that Mr. McDonnell publicly releasing his letter without even waiting a full day for a response "smacks of gamesmanship and not of an effort to resolve our differences."

Mr. McEachin said he had not yet seen any of the budget. Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, Virginia Beach Democrat and member of the Finance Committee, said there was a good reason for that.

"In the Senate, we're not sure where the budget is going, and the reason we're not sure where the budget is going [is] because some of the priorities of a 40-member Senate will be different from the priorities of a 41st-member Senate," said Ms. Miller, referring to Mr. Bolling's vote.

Delegate Lacey E. Putney, Bedford independent and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that while much of the focus this session has been on social issues, his committee's staff has been working nonstop on the budget since the start of session.

"We have not wasted any time in evaluating the most important document we will be voting on," Mr. Putney said.

House leaders appear to have the core elements of their budget proposal set. Their budget likely will contain many of the proposals Mr. McDonnell proposed in his spending plan. It will add nearly $300 million to the state's rainy day fund, nearly doubling it to $600 million, and fully fund the proposed rates for the Virginia Retirement System (VRS).

House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican and vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the House budget added $140 million in funding for K-12 education above the $438 million in additional money Mr. McDonnell had already proposed.

"We have taken what I think is a good budget, and we are going to make it a very good budget," he said.

Mr. Cox had invited each House member to relay their priorities and concerns, and Delegate Jennifer L. McClellan, Richmond Democrat, said the two sides were actually able to find common areas of concern, such as cuts to the health care safety net.

"We won't know for sure if he's listening until the House Appropriations Committee puts out their budget, but I'll give him credit for asking," she said. "I guess the proof will be in the pudding when the budget comes to the House floor."

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