- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

RICHMOND — Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. kicked two senior Democrats off a joint House-Senate committee yesterday to prevent senators from winning a vote they wanted — and injecting more bad blood into the stalled budget negotiations.
The vote was on whether to spend $75,000 Sen. John H. Chichester requested for a cocktail reception in Alaska. House members see Mr. Chichester, Stafford Republican, as blocking progress in ongoing negotiations over amendments to the states two-year budget.
Defeating his request was power politics at its simplest — the House leaders were looking for leverage to force senators to come to the table to talk about the Houses current budget proposal, and the senators werent about to go into negotiations on the Houses terms.
The dust-up comes a day after two senators sued the administration to try to stop the car-tax rebate from advancing to its next phase, and in the middle of continued budget negotiations.
The two chambers were unable to resolve the budget because they disagree over the size of the states rebate this year on the personal property tax on cars — the House and governor want to keep on schedule at 70 percent, but the Senate says there is only enough money for a 55 percent rebate.
Yesterdays vote was over whether to pay for a cocktail reception at this years Council of State Governments annual meeting in September in Alaska. Mr. Chichester is chairman-elect of the organization, and senators said the reception is a way to advertise next years meeting, which will be held in Richmond in December 2002.
There is a contract requiring the state to pay for the reception, and the Senate had originally requested the money in its budget-amendment package this year to meet the obligation. But when the two houses couldnt agree on the car-tax rebate and adjourned without passing budget amendments, it left the reception unfunded.
Mr. Chichester and other senators then wanted to spend the money from a fund kept by the Joint Rules Committee, which has members of both houses. But yesterday morning, Mr. Wilkins replaced two Democratic delegates on the committee who said they would have voted for the Senate proposal with two Democrats who instead voted in unison with House Republicans against it. The request failed on a 7-7 vote.
House members said spending that money at the same time there is still a deadlock over the rest of the budget — including the car tax and pay raises for public employees — isnt right.
"We as a legislative body should not put out special programs above the rest of the commonwealth, and thats exactly what were talking about," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.
Both Democrats kicked off the committee are retiring this year, and yesterday was supposed to be a swan song of sorts. One was Mr. Wilkins predecessor, former Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr., who is retiring to run for Norfolk treasurer; the other is Alan A. Diamonstein from Newport News, who is running for the nomination for lieutenant governor.
Both men said the move was unprecedented.
"He didnt have the right for this kind of arrogance," Mr. Diamonstein said.
The speaker defended his move, saying membership on this particular committee can be changed at his will because the committees role is unique.
He also said hed hoped the vote would give senators a reason to negotiate a way to pay for public employee salary increases and funding for state-supported cultural institutions — both of which remain unfunded in the fiscal year beginning July 1 without legislative action.
But Mr. Chichester criticized the vote.
"This is using a 105 mm howitzer to kill an ant. And when they fired, the ant wasnt even there. But what the howitzer did was blow a huge hole in the process we had in place in the past few days on redistricting and budgeting, " Mr. Chichester said.
The committee meeting was a prelude to what was supposed to be yesterdays main action — votes on redistricting plans. The House voted on the Senates map for redrawn Senate districts and the Senate voted on the Houses map for its own districts.
The squabbling spilled over into that action, too. Senators — worried the governor might be more likely to veto their plan because of their objection to his budget proposals — had wanted to attach both plans together in the same bill.
House members refused to allow the plans to be attached, though, and in the end each house approved the others plan, with most Republicans voting for them and most Democrats voting against them.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III now has seven days to amend, sign or veto the plans.
In Northern Virginia, the only significant change to the plans since last week is that Delegates L. Karen Darner and James F. Almand, both Arlington Democrats who had been put into the same district so one would have to move or not run again, are again in separate districts.
* This article is based in part on wire service Reports.

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