- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III yesterday tried to head off a special legislative session and preserve his car-tax cut by tacking pay raises for public employees onto a related Senate bill.
Because the General Assembly adjourned last month without revising the state budget, public workers were left without pay raises and lawmakers were scrambling to reconvene to enact those raises.
But if the legislature does reconvene, Mr. Gilmore would face another attempt to derail his car-tax-cut schedule, which barely survived the session intact.
"I'm going to sign an amendment to this bill and open the door to this opportunity for pay increases," the Republican governor told reporters yesterday as he signed the amendments and challenged the legislature to follow his lead.
Lawmakers will gather in Richmond April 4 to consider all the governor's vetoes and amendments, but this one is likely to dominate the session.
Mr. Gilmore's amendment would provide $125 million for pay raises for teachers, local constitutional officers and state workers by lowering the amount the state will contribute to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) this year.
He attached his amendment to a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Emily Couric, that would allow retired state teachers to be rehired.
The Republican-controlled assembly will decide whether Mr. Gilmore's amendment is similar to the original bill's intent and whether he has identified enough money to pay for the raises.
That was the major question last night for lawmakers, who had not had a chance to see the details of the governor's plan.
"We'll have to see if these numbers are true," said Mrs. Couric, Charlottesville Democrat. "This is the guy who said the car tax would only cost $600 million a year, and it costs $1.2 billion. This is the governor who said the crisis is over."
In this year's session, the House had agreed to keep the state's rebate of the personal property tax on cars on schedule, bumping the state's share of residents' bills up from 47.5 percent last year to 70 percent this year.
However, senators said the state could afford no more than a 55 percent rebate and proposed using the rest of the money for services.
A stalemate ensued, leaving the governor the task of closing a $421 million deficit in the budget. He did that by freezing building projects on state college campuses, cutting agency budgets and identifying unspent money already in the budget.
Senators have waged a public campaign to blame those cuts and the lack of raises on Mr. Gilmore, who they said refused to compromise on the car-tax issue.
But Mr. Gilmore's move now puts pressure on senators they either must accept his move, thus eliminating the major impetus for a special session, or they will have to vote against pay raises, which is always politically risky.
In addition to adding the pay raises to Mrs. Couric's bill yesterday, Mr. Gilmore signed into law parts of his transportation reform package, a measure to add restrictions to when and how teens may obtain a driver's license and a measure to impose a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking an abortion.
Mr. Gilmore had until midnight yesterday to sign, veto or amend all of the 782 bills the assembly passed this year.
For the first time in state history, the budget wasn't among those bills, since the legislature adjourned Feb. 24 without agreeing to amendments to the two-year budget they passed last year.
That left teachers, college faculty, deputy sheriffs and other public employees without state-funded pay raises this year. Many localities are able to fund part or all of sheriffs' and teachers' raises, but legislators also like to be able to point to those accomplishments during elections, and all 100 House seats are open this year.
Leaving without a budget also meant no money for many of the historical and cultural attractions throughout the state, and the governor still hasn't been able to find a way to fund them.
According to the administration, the raises for teachers will cost $48.5 million, the raises for state employees will cost $63.3 million and the raises for the other state-supported employees total $13.6 million.
College faculty will get raises that put them at the 60th percentile rate, compared with similar universities. Other employees will get a 3.5 percent raise, beginning in December.
The Senate had proposed 6 percent raises for teachers and a slightly different formula for funding college faculty.
Both the House and Senate had proposed the same thing in their own budget amendments, but since they never agreed to a final version, the action never occurred.
The administration, the legislature's actuaries and VRS' actuaries all have found that the VRS is overfunded: Its investments have done so well that it has more than enough money to meet its obligations. That's why the state doesn't need to pay in as much this year.
Yet VRS' governing board opposes the adjustment, as did many House Democrats who voted against it in session this year.
Adjusting the VRS rates also affects localities. The governor said they now will have an additional $92 million to spend.


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