RICHMOND — Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked the House version of Virginia’s two-year spending plan, citing inadequate funding for core services such as public education and health care and a disregard on the part of Republicans for the 20 votes they have in an evenly split chamber.
The 20-19 budget vote, which fell along party lines, was one short of the 21 votes needed for passage. The vote sets up a situation unprecedented in modern Virginia history, throws the prospects of a scheduled March 10 adjournment into flux and portends the eventual prospect of a partial government shutdown if an agreement isn’t reached by July 1.
“By far, the most important thing we’ll do during this session of the General Assembly is adopt a budget,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican. “And if we fail to do that, the responsibility will set squarely on the shoulders of the 20 Democrats in the Virginia state Senate. And make no mistake about it, the people of Virginia will hold them accountable.”
While it has been generally agreed that Mr. Bolling can’t cast tie-breaking votes on the budget, Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, did not vote, saying he did not want to test the premise.
Localities, schools and public safety officials are all dependent on funding from the state, and many are in the process of crafting their own budgets. The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, and the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association have penned letters to lawmakers in recent days urging them to avoid an impasse.
“Even a minor delay in approval of a budget will severely impact our ability to plan for the coming months,” wrote David N. Grimes, president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. “Any delay in actual funding could severely limit our ability to perform our core functions investigating and prosecuting crime and serving crime victims.”
Policy or politics?
Democrats say they cannot vote for a budget that, for example, funds K-12 education below 2007 levels, bumps 4,500 senior citizens off Medicaid coverage, and provides up to $25 million a year in tax credits for corporations to provide scholarships for low-income children to attend private school.
“Whenever they decide that they cannot run the government without us, and they decide they want to talk to us, that’s when the negotiations will begin,” said caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat.
Democrats are still sore over the first day of the session, when Mr. Bolling used his tie-breaking authority to help Republicans organize the body as a working majority despite a 20-20 split in the chamber, which included GOP majorities on all but one of the Senate’s standing committees.
Mr. Saslaw said no new ground was broken Wednesday, since Republicans voted in lock step against the budget in 2008 when Democrats were in control of the chamber. Substantive policy issues would have to be addressed in any solution, he said, but equal representation on committees “would help.”
That’s a nonstarter for the GOP, said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican.
“Make no mistake about it - the Senate Republicans are not going to be extorted by having the budget held in hostage over political shenanigans and bruised political egos,” Mr. Norment said. “I am embarrassed for them. If this is not Washingtonian behavior, I have never seen it.”
Still, Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, Russell Democrat, advised anyone saying that Wednesday’s vote was only about politics to cast their gaze to the beginning of the session, when Republicans rejected a power-sharing proposal from Democrats.
“Anyone that can count knows that we deserve respect [and] consideration for the 20 votes that we have in the Senate,” he said. “And we are asking for that - no more, and no less.”