- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

RICHMOND Virginia lawmakers will spend this week enmeshed in the minutiae of redrawing legislative districts and will delay heavy lifting on the state's budget impasse.

Republicans, who control the House and Senate, agreed to Democrats' calls to extend the redistricting process by a few days in order to allow for more public hearings, now that the proposed maps have been released.

But sources within Gov. James S. Gilmore III's administration, and aides to House Republicans, cited another benefit to delaying redistricting, and thus the budget: The longer the delay, the more likely it is the car-tax rebate will remain at 70 percent this year.

Everyone involved has tacitly agreed not to take up the budget until redistricting is complete, and under the current schedule the governor won't have to sign the plans until the end of April by which time enough car-tax bills will have been printed or even sent out showing a 70 percent rebate that anything less would be politically disastrous.

The assembly adjourned Feb. 24 without approving changes to the two-year budget it passed last year. Lawmakers had left a hole in the budget's second year for pay raises for public employees and for funding for museums and parks, figuring they would return this year to fund those needs.

Negotiations broke down when the House stuck with the governor, insisting on a 70 percent car-tax rebate this year, while the Senate refused to go higher than a 55 percent rebate.

The biggest movement this week came from the budget proposal by Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, who presented a proposal that keeps the car tax on schedule this year at 70 percent but holds it there unless state revenue grows significantly next year.

Mr. Hamilton had the benefit of hindsight. He was able to incorporate in his proposal at least $50 million in cash that Mr. Gilmore has proposed in administrative cuts.

Mr. Gilmore had to come up with his own contingency plan to balance the budget and close a $421 million deficit in case lawmakers couldn't agree on a budget.

The Hamilton budget's use of the Senate car-tax reimbursement numbers might move the Senate off its mark.

Senators had argued that the House proposals underestimated the number and value of cars, so their proposal wouldn't have enough money to pay for the entire state at 70 percent. Mr. Hamilton included the Senate estimates in his budget, muting that argument.

"I think there were legitimate concerns about next year and the different projections and the hole," said Speaker of the House S. Vance Wilkins Jr.

By Friday evening, six House Democrats had joined 48 Republicans and the House's sole independent in signing onto the Hamilton plan as co-sponsors. Of the four Republicans who haven't signed it, one is expected to sign, while two others won't sign because they won't attach their support to a plan that, in their view, could be seen as waffling on the second year.

Having 55 House sponsors meets half of Mr. Wilkins' requirement before he will endorse a special session, but the other house remains.

No senators had signed on, but the plan has been circulated among them. Though key senators were still saying there was no way the Senate could approve a budget with a 70 percent car-tax rebate this year, they also were saying Mr. Hamilton's proposal may be a vehicle to get both sides to the table.

House Republicans hope they won't have a choice.

The longer the process continues, the more jurisdictions will send out car-tax bills that show the state paying 70 percent of the tax on the first $20,000 of a car's value and residents paying 30 percent.

Any change would require new bills, which would be politically unpopular.

So far, Loudoun County and Richmond city, which have bills due at the beginning of May, have sent out bills at 70 percent.

Officials in Chesapeake city and Chesterfield and Albemarle counties, some of those that have bills due June 5, said they are in a wait-and-see position.

Others, like Treasurer Alfred C. Anderson in Roanoke County, which has bills due May 31, said he will send out his bills in two weeks with a 70 percent rebate.

"Right now, the law says 70 percent. I recognize the General Assembly is in special session and anything can happen, [but] I did speak with the governor Tuesday and basically he said, 'I don't know what the General Assembly is going to do, but I know what I'm going to do I'm going to veto anything less than 70 percent,' " Mr. Anderson said.

Other signs of a break in the impasse have emerged.

Jean Bankos, president of the Virginia Education Association, who had questioned the earlier 70 percent rebate proposals, has praised the new proposal as addressing "many of the concerns shared by the Virginia Education Association and other organizations."

House Republican sources said that might be the sign that the coalition opposed to 70 percent sees the handwriting on the wall.

Pitfalls remain, including the pattern of miscalculation that plagued negotiations during the regular session, when each side figured the other would compromise on its position.

Now, Republicans in both houses privately say those in the other chamber might be more flexible after the new legislative districts are drawn.

The new districts, they argue, will make incumbents feel safe enough to buck the party leadership in their own chamber.

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