- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2012

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly plans to adjourn on time Saturday but without approving a spending plan for the next two years, lawmakers said Friday.

Senate Republicans and Democrats have been at loggerheads over approving a new $85 billion, two-year budget. Democrats, who have successfully blocked both the Senate and House versions of the budget, on Wednesday outlined a specific list of requests they want to see added. The list includes restoring $65 million to offset a higher cost-of-living for Northern Virginia school personnel, providing money for ultrasounds women will soon have to receive before they have an abortion, and indexing the state gas tax to inflation rather than divert money from the general fund to go toward transportation, a plan preferred by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Mr. McDonnell responded to Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, and Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, with a sharp letter Friday thanking them for outlining specific requests, but admonishing them for their 11th-hour timing.

“I thank you for your letter and for finally articulating your specific requests,” Mr. McDonnell wrote. “But you and I know that all of these differences could have been handled within the confines of the regular session of the General Assembly if that is what you really desired.”

He wrote that their budget requests totaled $605 million in new money over the biennium, and asked them to follow up with specific ways to raise revenue or make cuts to pay for the new spending. He also pointed out that a Senate bill that would index the gas tax to inflation is currently in conference, but indicated that he would not be inclined to support it, calling his own proposal “a reasonable and affordable approach.”

“The Senate version of that bill would raise the costs of gasoline when the price per gallon has already more than doubled during the term of President Obama,” he wrote. “You and I know there is no legislative consensus on this proposal, and I seriously doubt the citizens of the Commonwealth would support any policy that increases gas prices at this time.”

Still, the atmosphere during a Senate Finance Committee meeting Friday was decidedly more cordial than the partisan sniping that’s gone on for much of the session — likely thanks in large part to a passionate floor speech made Thursday by Senator Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat. Mr. Colgan, 85, has served in the Senate for 36 years and implored members on both sides to tone down the rhetoric so they could complete their work, even telling his fellow Democrats that they may not get everything that they’re asking for.

“Senator Colgan is a very experienced statesman — he’s trying hard, as I think we all are, to say that it’s time for us to settle down and get to work,” said Sen. Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee. “I thought it was a very passionate appeal to both sides to settle down and do our work.”

“Most people are pretty tired and they’d like to go back home and take care of a few things at the office and then I think they’ll be ready to come back and re-engage,” he continued.

The idea is to adjourn Saturday, immediately reconvene in a special session, then have a small group of negotiators continue their work with more legislators returning later.

A number of small groups of House and Senate members have been meeting this week to iron out differences between the chambers’ spending priorities.

“I think we’re making progress,” said Mr. Saslaw, who is known for his fiery rhetoric. “I’m not going to get into details. … I know you all are waiting for me to give you another ‘Saslaw quote.’ Come on, you guys.”

“Nothing happens but for deadlines and emergencies,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, referring to the potential impact on local governments if the budget is not adopted in a timely manner. “Because we are trying to tone down the rhetoric and move forward in a constructive way, we’re not going to offer any premature criticism of [Democrats’] items.”