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."
The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday layered its own amendments over the House version of the two-year, $85 billion budget - standard practice as both versions advance through their respective houses. But Wednesday was the last day for each chamber to act on the budget bills of the other, so the impasse leaves the assembly in uncharted territory, said Finance Secretary Richard D. Brown.
"In essence, we're in regular session with no real vehicle for a conference committee to consider," he said.
The situation is unprecedented. Budget standoffs took place in 2001, 2004 and 2006, but Gov. James S. Gilmore III ended up amending a two-year budget already in place in 2001. And there had been a budget conference between the two bodies to work with in 2004 and 2006.
As it stands, each chamber, by unanimous consent, can reintroduce a budget bill, and Gov. Bob McDonnell can send down a budget at any point. The assembly could also adjourn and return to address it in a special session.
In 2006, the House and Senate, in a spat over transportation funding, failed to approve a budget before the General Assembly adjourned. Gov. Tim Kaine said he had the authority to enact a spending plan if the legislature did not. But Mr. McDonnell, then the state's attorney general, concluded in an official opinion that the state Constitution designates that authority to the General Assembly.
"It might be premature to get into that in the absence of seeing exactly what they want to do in the next few weeks," said Mr. Brown.
Mr. McDonnell said he has talked with many members of the Senate Democratic caucus, but that they may have a tough sell to the people of Virginia on their hands.
"There are many over there that truly are statesmen, really do want to see Virginia be put first, and I think that they don't want to be in the embarrassing situation of having to look their constituents in the eye and [say], 'I killed the Senate budget because I wanted to have more power and better committees,'" he said. "That's not a good argument. That's not the way people on either side do things around here."
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David Sherfinski covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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