- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

RICHMOND Virginia's General Assembly money committees offered clashing views on pay raises yesterday as both raced against a midnight deadline to put the finishing touches on spending proposals to balance the state's two-year, $51 billion budget and plug an estimated $3.8 billion shortfall through 2004.
Lawmakers hope to avoid another deadlock, similar to last year's budget impasse.
"There are going to be a lot of differences," said Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican and member of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee. "We'll just go head to head with the Senate. We'll compromise and hopefully they'll compromise and we'll come up with a good budget."
The committee retreated from its agreement with Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner not to raise teacher salaries by proposing a 2.75 percent pay raise next year for public school teachers and state employees.
The same committee also rejected Mr. Warner's plan to take $317 million from $653 million allocated for the Transportation Trust Fund and shift it to the general fund. The panel instead wants to cut expenses paid for with the general fund by eliminating and consolidating some state agencies and programs.
The budget coming out of the Senate Finance Committee has no provision for such raises. It offers state teachers and employees a 2.5 percent bonus in December and a 2 percent bonus next year. Teachers and state-funded local positions such as sheriff's deputies would not receive bonuses.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Fredericksburg Republican, described the two proposals as "like night and day."
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, seemed pleased that his House committee had found money for education and transportation.
"I didn't think they could do it, or didn't think they had the nerve to do it," Mr. Wilkins said.
The two proposals now go to the floor of both the House and Senate.
Mr. Chichester criticized the House pay-raise plan, saying money to make it feasible was coming from the Virginia Retirement System (VRS), which supplies retired state employees and others with their pensions.
"Many, many think that that's their private savings account," Mr. Chichester said. "That VRS is an area that we do not venture into because that does nothing, especially in a time like this, not touching it gives at least gives confidence to state employees. Raiding it can diminish confidence."
The specific reductions the House offered come from public safety, indigent care, economic development and some education programs. Specifically, $44 million Mr. Warner had proposed for anti-terrorism programs was reduced to $8.9 million by the House committee. Also eliminiated was $55 million Mr. Warner had put into the budget for public school construction.
The Senate committee, however, mostly stuck with Mr. Warner's across-the-board budget cuts and most of his spending plans.
A handful of fee increases included in both the Senate and House committees' amendments will bring millions of dollars into the state treasury to fill the budget gap.
The House's version includes a $4 increase in vehicle-registration fees. Under Mr. Warner's proposed budget, $2 of each fee would be used to fund $30 million worth of anti-terrorism and emergency services. The House committee wants the money to go into the general fund.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan, Fairfax Republican, defended the targeted cuts and fee increases.
"We put everything on the table. There would be no sacred cows," Mr. Callahan said.
Other delegates said Mr. Warner's proposed 7 percent and 8 percent across-the-board cuts for all state agencies over the next budget were inflexible and drastic.
Under the Senate committee's plan, $146 million has been trimmed by eliminating three state agencies and reducing the amount localities receive by 10 percent to pay for constitutional offices, such as the sheriff's department.
The Senate's plan also closes several jails, including a detention facility in Fairfax County.
Last year, with Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III in office, the Senate and House could not agree on the size of the car-tax phase-out and amendments to the 2001-02 budget were never acted upon, leaving it up to Mr. Gilmore to make $421 million worth of cuts to state programs and agencies.
Warner administration sources said the governor felt he acted in good faith with the House leadership, but seemed to have been burned.
"Anything that is restored has to be cut from somewhere else," one top Warner administration source said, talking about the House budget, which, among other things, would put back the $317 million Mr. Warner wanted taken from the highway trust fund. "This is a zero-sum situation."
Mr. Warner said in a statement that he is continuing to analyze the House and Senate's recommendations and will speak out about them later in the week.
"There are clearly major differences between the two bodies," Mr. Warner said.


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