- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

RICHMOND The Republican-controlled General Assembly convened yesterday with House of Delegates Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. challenging his fellow lawmakers to fix the state budget and repair Virginia's economy.
"We can't wait for pure blind luck to bring us our next period of economic prosperity," Mr. Wilkins told the packed chamber. "Only by working together, dreaming great dreams together, sharing a vision of a better Virginia can we bring these things to pass."
The General Assembly, with 22 new House members as well as the 40 senators who face elections in the fall, will have to contend with plugging a $1.3 billion hole in the current 2001-2002 biennium budget that ends June 30. They will also have to write a new 2003-2004 budget, but will have an estimated $2 billion less revenue to spend.
And the legislature, which meets this year for its long 60-day session, will be dealing with a new Democratic governor who has never held elected office, multimillionaire Gov.-elect Mark R. Warner. Mr. Warner has said there probably will be layoffs of state employees, elimination of tax credits and deductions, and other measures to stem the tide of red ink. He also believes there could be a total $5 billion shortfall in revenue through 2006.
Most importantly, legislators said yesterday, there will be the need for cooperation so that there is not a repeat of last year's session, when outgoing Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the legislature could not agree on amendments to the two-year budget, forcing Mr. Gilmore to make $421 million in spending cuts and freezes. The stalemate also caused a good deal of bad blood and bruised egos that will have to be soothed.
"Last year was last year's bird's nest. I see a new day, a fresh day. We have common goals," said Sen. John H. Chichester, Fredericksburg Republican and Senate Finance Committee chairman.
Mr. Chichester said earlier in the week during a press conference with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican, that both the House and Senate had "reconciled" over their differences. Yesterday, Mr. Chichester said he has also been in touch with Mr. Warner about working cooperatively.
Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Gate City Republican, said he can see legislators working more closely together to deal with the budget, which will inevitably involve cuts in state spending.
"We just don't have the money," Mr. Kilgore said. "It's going to come down to prioritization, how we prioritize our spending."
Money will have to be found, though, for Medicaid, education spending and increased security costs related to terrorist threats after September 11.
The Senate also opened its session, but albeit in a more subdued fashion, with committee assignments doled out soon after the gavel dropped by the outgoing Senate president, soon-to-be-former Lt. Gov. John H. Hager.
The House, on the other hand, was still wrangling about committee assignments, and Republican lawmakers said it could be as late as last night or early tomorrow that every delegate has a committee seat.
Northern Virginia, which accounts for 29 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate, will have even more power this year, especially the Republicans, who hold 18 of those 29 House seats. But the power they have may not do them much good, since money is so tight.
"We need to find some resources for transportation and education in these very lean times," said state Sen. Leslie L. Byrne, Fairfax Democrat and one of seven Northern Virginia Democrats in the Senate.
Mrs. Byrne and other lawmakers from the region are counting on a referendum raising the sales tax in Northern Virginia to pay for education and transportation needs.
Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, has a bill that asks voters next fall to raise the sales tax by 1 cent to 5.5 cents per dollar to pay for both transportation and education needs, even though Mr. Wilkins has said he would only support a referendum that raises the sales tax for transportation needs.
Mr. Dillard, however, said that with surging population and aging schools, Northern Virginia needs the power to fix its own problems.
"We have more kids in trailers than most school districts in the states have kids," Mr. Dillard said, noting that statewide there is a $6.2 billion to $8.2 billion shortfall in school-construction needs.

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