- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

RICHMOND Virginia senators yesterday pulled back on an effort begun just the day before that would have opened the door toward resolving the state's budget impasse.
Republican senators had proposed changing the rules of the ongoing special redistricting session to also allow consideration of amendments to the budget. But yesterday members of the Senate Rules Committee delayed action on the rules change, saying they wanted to talk more with the House before going ahead.
At the same time, the House appears to be unifying behind a plan, which would give delegates a solid front if they enter into negotiations with senators.
The budget impasse began Feb. 24 when the assembly adjourned without amending the second year of the two-year budget passed last year. That left public employees without pay raises and many museums and parks without state funds.
The sticking point was the schedule for the state's share of the rebate on the personal property tax on cars. Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the Republican majority in the House insisted the rebate stay on schedule at 70 percent this year, while most senators from both parties said the state couldn't afford any more than a 55 percent rebate.
The two sides are still divided over the details of the budget and, in a situation reminiscent of high-stakes international peace talks, even disagree over the rules to follow to get both sides to the table.
Senators want to begin a session and then negotiate from there, with the understanding that the state may not be able to afford to go all the way to 70 percent.
But House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, has said he doesn't see any point in working on the budget unless there's agreement on what will be passed including agreement on a 70 percent car-tax rebate this year. He and other House Republicans don't want to go into session just to have Republican senators attack them over the car tax again.
Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have to worry about losing Senate Democrats from their coalition if they accede to a higher car-tax rebate this year.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, told fellow Rules Committee members yesterday he hoped the rules-change resolution wasn't a sign the Senate was ready to back away from its position.
At the same time, a new budget proposal that guarantees a 70 percent rebate this year but doesn't guarantee the scheduled 100 percent next year is gaining steam in the House. The plan funds pay raises and many of the cultural institutions that are left unfunded without a budget agreement.
Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican and the main author of the new plan, said 62 members of the House have signed on to the plan, including 13 Democrats.
"We're further along today than we were yesterday and that's further along than the day before," he said. "But with each day, there's a back end that we're starting to push against."
That back end is the fact that some localities are sending out their car-tax bills showing a 70 percent state share of the rebate, and many more communities will have to decide what to do in the next two weeks.
Mr. Hamilton said the longer the delay, the more it hurts localities and the more it puts a crimp on residents, who may get less time to pay their bills than in the past.
Even though senators are the ones who proposed fast-tracking a budget session, they say the bills being sent out don't change their position. None has signed on to the Hamilton plan.

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