- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

RICHMOND The procedural deadline for a compromise budget package came and went last night with Virginia legislators on each side of the car-tax rebate debate giving little ground and little indication a compromise is near.

Missing the deadline isn't unusual, budget conference members said, but the impasse between both sides has rarely been as big as it is this year, and the sides haven't even agreed on how to begin work.

Yesterday, Gov. James S. Gilmore III and House Republicans who want to rebate 70 percent of individuals' annual personal property tax on cars this year and 100 percent next year tried to put the screws to the Senate, which wants to cover 50 percent this year and 70 percent next year. Last year's rate is 47.5 percent.

Republican House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. said the choice is either to accept the 70 percent rebate now and write a budget that accounts for that or face a stalemate or governor's veto, either of which would likely leave the governor in the position of making administrative cuts himself. Those cuts, he said, might not be kind to some lawmakers' districts and pet projects.

"We're going to have 70 percent one way or another," Mr. Wilkins said, flanked by more than 45 Republicans enough to uphold a governor's veto.

Senators, led by Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican, are adamantly opposed to 70 percent, arguing that with state revenue declining, the car-tax cut will break the bank and require cuts to critical services. They continue to push for the House to compromise, which would force a showdown with the governor.

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn Saturday, and the conference made up of four members from each house's budget-writing committee is supposed to come up with a compromise both can agree to by then. They are trying to put together amendments to the two-year, $50 billion budget they passed last year.

The car tax is the major hurdle in front of conference members.

Last night, as the procedural deadline neared, each side accused the other of failing to negotiate. At about 9 p.m., House members, after having yet another proposal rejected by Senate members, announced they were going home.

The difference between the House and Senate plans is about $270 million. The Senate spends that money on services, the House sends it back to taxpayers. For a Fairfax County family with a car valued at $15,000 and a car valued at $7,000, the administration says the House plan puts about $500 more in their pocket than the Senate plan.

The governor, on WTOP radio yesterday, urged listeners to call Northern Virginia senators and tell them to continue the car-tax rebate rather than follow through on their plans to increase spending and reduce the size of some of the governor's proposed budget cuts.

"Where are they going to get the money in a time of declining revenue? The answer is they want to go to the people's fund for the car tax and get that," Mr. Gilmore said on his monthly call-in show.

In past years, the conference members from each house have paired off to work on a compromise on a specific area of spending, like education. The Senate wanted to progress that way this year, but House members say that's impossible without first tackling the car-tax rebate.

"We've never had a conference where you have to solve a major issue before anything else," said Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican and one of the House's four conference members.

So far, the senators have taken a wait-and-see-and-reject approach. They first demanded a proposal that didn't use any debt. The House complied, but senators said it cut too deeply from critical services. The House then produced a second proposal with different cuts and squeezing new money out of other sources, and the Senate rejected it as still cutting too deeply.

Another option rejected by the Senate would move the rebate to 70 percent this year, freeze it there for next year, and use that second-year money to pay for critical programs and then move forward.

"We could probably come up with another three proposals today and another three proposals tomorrow and indefinitely, but we have made three proposals to them, we have gotten three responses," said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican and head of the House budget writers, clearly frustrated by the impasse. "Each one of them says 'No.' Not an alternative, not an amendment to our proposals, not a position of their own, not a proposal to us. It has not been forthcoming. I think we've done our part."

Mr. Callahan was upset over senators' insistence on giving teachers a 6 percent pay raise the House is offering a 3.5 percent raise and on keeping intact most of their own spending items and restorations of the governor's proposed cuts.

But senators said their priorities, particularly education, are essential.

"We're not yielding on those because those are significant," Mr. Chichester said.

• • •

In other General Assembly action:

Informed consent, the measure that requires a woman to wait 24 hours between seeking and having an abortion, passed the House yesterday and now goes to the governor, who has said he expects to sign it into law. Two identical bills passed. Both would require that, in addition to waiting, a woman receive from the doctor or clinic information about the abortion procedure and alternatives.

The House also passed a bill that would ease Virginia's stringent requirements on introducing exculpatory DNA evidence after someone has been convicted of a crime.

The bill would let someone convicted of a crime petition a court to have DNA testing done if new DNA evidence is discovered or a new test is invented that would likely exonerate the convict. The original bill was limited only to convicts who pleaded not guilty, but a House amendment would allow those who entered into a plea bargain to also petition for new DNA testing. The Senate must now consider that amendment.

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