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No break in Virginia budget impasse as Democrats list demands

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

RICHMOND — There is "zero" chance that the General Assembly will pass a new two-year budget by its scheduled Saturday adjournment, the Senate's top Democrat said Wednesday as the caucus laid out a detailed list of demands to Gov. Bob McDonnell before Democratic Caucus members will consider a vote on a spending plan.

The demands issued by Democratic leadership include indexing the state's gas tax to inflation, sparing women having abortions from paying for mandatory ultrasounds, and providing $576,000 to the University of Virginia for legal fees associated with Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli's inquiry into a former university climatologist. (The University spent private funds to defend itself in the case.)

"We hope this correspondence provides the necessary insight for you to get positively invested in the budget process," wrote Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, and caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat. "This issue will not be resolved in the media or on the airwaves."

The letter comes a day after a bipartisan working group of House and Senate members began discussions in an attempt to break an impasse on the proposed two-year, $85 billion proposal.

Democrats have been pushing for a power-sharing deal in the evenly divided Senate since the first day of the session, when Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, used his tie-breaking vote to help the GOP organize as a working majority.

So what would happen if the Democrats were granted everything on their wish list, even without power-sharing?

"We'd probably be voting for the budget," Mr. Saslaw said. "This would probably move it pretty close to a vote."

But Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, said acceding to everything outlined in the letter would be a nonstarter.

"They have to appreciate, in spite of all the rhetoric and demagoguery, that they are in a functional minority in the Senate of Virginia," Mr. Norment said. "I know that's a bitter pill to swallow, but a fact is a fact is a fact that they are. I appreciate the letter, but the 57th day [of the session]? Give me a break."

The Democrats also want $66 million restored for a "cost-of-competing adjustment" (COCA) to go to Northern Virginia school employees to offset the area's higher cost of living, and they want any language that would restrict union-friendly labor agreements on state-funded construction projects stricken from the budget.

The Senate budget restored $42 million for the COCA funding from the original budget proposal by Mr. McDonnell, a Republican. The project labor agreement (PLA) issue has been a major sticking point for the governor's willingness to put up an additional $150 million in state money for Phase 2 of the Dulles Metrorail project. The General Assembly already has passed legislation that would bar state-funded projects from mandating such an agreement, used between contractors and labor groups to set the terms and conditions of employment.

"They burnt down the whole house, and suddenly they're concerned about what happened to some of the furniture?" said McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin, adding that the list of demands was "at least a start,"

"Senate Democrats do seem to be finally realizing there is an important job to be done in passing a budget in a timely manner, and that's a good thing," he said.

Mr. Saslaw said there likely still would have to be some committee shake-ups to break the impasse completely, but Mr. Norment said that's another debate for another time.

"I cannot allow them to politically extort a position on a budget to get political power, because once you do it, then they'll come back next year when we need budget amendments, saying, 'We're not going to support these budget amendments unless you give us this,' " he said. "I am not going to succumb to that."

The 20 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have successfully hung together twice — first rejecting their own version of the budget, then the House of Delegates' version, as Mr. Bolling has ruled that he cannot break tie votes on the budget. Republicans would need only one crossover to end the impasse. That's not going to happen, Mr. Saslaw said.

"Nobody in our caucus is going to crack, OK?" he said. "Name five people in our caucus they ain't gone to offering the sun and the moon. And they've all been told 'no.' "

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