- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

RICHMOND (AP) The state Senate yesterday swiftly wrapped up work on a budget that would provide bonuses for state workers and restore about $335 million earmarked for transportation, and sent it to a chilly reception in the House of Delegates.

The House, meanwhile, worked into the evening on its version of the two-year, $50.5 billion budget, which would restore $653 million for transportation and provide 2.75 percent raises for state workers, teachers and college professors.

Democrats objected to scores of amendments to the House budget, arguing that the Republican majority was shortsighted in cutting education, human services and economic development to offset a $3.8 billion revenue shortfall over 2½ years.

A conference committee of senior legislators from each chamber will be appointed to try to resolve the vast differences in the two spending plans before the General Assembly's scheduled March 9 adjournment.

By a vote of 39-1, the Senate approved a package of amendments to balance a budget for the current year that without revisions would exceed revenues by about $1.3 billion.

Then, on a 34-6 vote, senators approved a 350-page blueprint for state spending and revenues for the budget cycle that begins in July and runs through June 2004.

They wrapped up their business in less than two hours. Debate focusing on plans to close a state prison in Staunton and Democratic attacks on the 1998 car-tax cut and its effects on state finances ravaged by recession.

"I guarantee that every one of you will find something in this budget that you don't like. I guarantee you there are a pile of them I don't like," Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told his colleagues before the vote.

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta County Republican, appealed to senators not to shutter the Staunton Correctional Center, a former mental hospital with buildings that date to the 1840s. The shutdown, which would wipe out as many as 378 jobs, was approved overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

"I have not seen convincing evidence that institution is the one" to be closed, Mr. Hanger said.

With the state's inmate population decreasing and federal prisoners being moved to new federal lockups, the state has too many empty cells, said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican. Another $18 million in upgrades is needed, he said.

Mr. Hanger called the $18 million figure "a wish list," and said only about $3 million of the work was necessary.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, took aim at former Gov. James S. Gilmore III's embattled car-tax phaseout, which stalemated the legislature's efforts to revise the current budget a year ago.

He said a man had complained to him about his inability to get his son into the University of Virginia, despite excellent grades and test scores, because scant state funding had pushed the school to accept out-of-state students who pay higher tuitions.

"You know what I told him? I said, 'Yeah, but you got your car-tax relief.' And you know that this fellow told me and he was an attorney," said Mr. Saslaw. "He said, 'I never realized that one had anything to do with the other.' Well, duh."

A Senate committee, citing pressure from public-education officials, delayed action on a bill that would give greater autonomy to the state agency responsible for protecting the rights of the disabled.

Despite overwhelming approval in the House and the support of Gov. Mark R. Warner, the Senate Education and Health Committee yesterday sent the measure to a subcommittee for further study.

"This bill has a number of unanswered questions," said committee Chairman Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican.

The subcommittee may consider exempting public schools from investigations by the Department for Rights of Virginians with Disabilities (DRVD), a move that could cost the agency the federal funding that accounts for 90 percent of its budget.

The bill sponsored by Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, and passed by the House 94-6 would remove DRVD from the executive branch and make it an independent agency, insulating it from the political influence of the governor's office.

Forty other states have an independent agency, which Mr. Warner has said is needed for DRVD to be an effective watchdog of other state agencies.

Mr. Hamilton's bill is identical to the bill passed by the same Senate committee and the full Senate in 1999 and 2000. Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III vetoed the bill both times.

The Senate committee postponed a vote after Sens. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, and William T. Bolling, Hanover Republican, said they had received numerous complaints from public-education officials worried about possible DRVD investigations in schools.

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