- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

RICHMOND — A contentious legislative session has sent the Virginia General Assembly’s approval scores underwater after months of positive ratings - a development that comes as lawmakers gaveled in a special session Wednesday to break an impasse on the state’s two-year, $85 billion budget proposal.

Virginia voters approved of the state legislature by a 47 percent to 37 percent margin in a Quinnipiac poll released last month, but this month those numbers flipped to 38 percent who approved and 47 percent who disapproved, according to figures released Wednesday.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, told reporters that the numbers were only surprising in that they were positive in the first place.

“Every state that I do and that Quinnipiac does, the legislature is never that positive,” he said. “The fact that Virginia voters were so positive on the legislature was in itself unusual.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell also saw his approval rating drop from a 58 percent to 24 percent split in February to a 53 percent to 32 percent figure in the numbers released Wednesday.

The poll, conducted March 13-18 of 1,034 registered voters, has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Mr. Brown said it would be reasonable to assume there was “some linkage” between Mr. McDonnell’s slight drop in approval ratings and the passage of controversial bills during the legislative session. The poll showed that a majority of voters opposed a bill that will require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before they get an abortion and also opposed another bill that repeals the state’s ban on purchasing more than one handgun per month.

Mr. McDonnell’s 53 percent approval rating was the governor’s lowest since Quinnipiac began surveying voters in the state last June.

“On the other hand, his numbers are still really, really good,” Mr. Brown said.

Despite their negative job-approval numbers, lawmakers gathered in Richmond to hash out a budget deal seemed to be in good spirits.

A group of six delegates and six senators is working to craft a compromise on the state’s spending plan and to address a list of demands from Senate Democrats. The group was a bit cagey about the details of negotiations but reported making progress.

The Republican-led House passed its version of the budget, but the 20-member Senate Democratic caucus successfully blocked both the House and Senate budgets during the regular session, calling for more equitable committee representation in the evenly divided chamber and more money for education and transportation, among other items. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tiebreaking vote in the Senate does not extend to budget matters.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat and one of the 12 negotiators, said Democrats have gotten much of what they requested, including more money to offset the high cost of living for Northern Virginia school personnel, as well as funds for K-12 and pre-K education.

Mr. Colgan said committee assignments have not been part of the budget discussions. He said he thought his party has gotten enough for him to vote in favor of the budget. Republicans would need just one Democrat to break ranks.

Issues still unresolved as of late Wednesday included a demand that either the state or insurers pay for ultrasound imaging that will be mandated before women can have an abortion - the result of a contentious law passed this year. Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat, is also pushing for $250 million to help control rising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road as part of the construction of the 23-mile Silver Line project. The money would be in addition to the $150 million the state has already agreed to provide in principle for the second leg of the project.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday at 11 a.m. in order to brief members who are not part of the negotiations, Chairman Walter A. Stosch said.

“It’s perhaps a little more deliberative than some would like, but it’s important that all members be briefed and up-to-date,” the Henrico Republican said.