- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

RICHMOND The House of Delegates yesterday abruptly ended this year's session without voting on a contentious tax-increase referendum for Northern Virginia transportation and education needs that had been approved only minutes before by the state Senate.
Earlier in the day, the General Assembly did manage to approve a $50 billion two-year budget that will possibly include layoffs of state employees and deep cuts to state agency's budgets. The 2003-2004 budget that goes into effect July 1 gives more money to public schools and provides teachers and state employees with bonuses and pay raises.
The 57-37 vote to adjourn, largely along party lines, came at 5:25 p.m. as Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. waited in the House chamber to inform the delegates of the Senate's action and its hope that they would vote on the two sales tax referendum bills before leaving town. The members had until midnight before they were required by law to adjourn.
But House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, jumped up as soon as delegates sat down, calling for a motion of "sine die" ending the 60-day session.
House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, who opposed the referendum legislation, did not recognize Mr. Norment because the motion to adjourn had been made. After a raucus 30-minute debate tinged with anger from Democrats, the House voted to adjourn.
The action infuriated Democrats and disappointed some Northern Virginia Republicans.
"The GOP was elected, in part, because the Democrats abused power," said Delegate Albert C. Pollard Jr., Northern Neck Democrat. "And the Republican majority hasn't learned that lesson."
"I am sorry it ended this way," said Delegate R. Lee Ware, Powhatan Republican, who voted to end the session. "It leaves a sour taste in your mouth."
Among those voting to adjourn were nine Northern Virginia Republicans. Six Republicans including Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites and Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., both of Fairfax voted against ending without a vote on the referendum bills.
"I think it was legislative insensitivity," a visibly angry Mr. Norment said. "It could have been avoided."
Delegate David B. Albo, a Fairfax Republican who voted to adjourn, dismissed the criticism. "It's just another way to kill a bill," he said.
Mr. Wilkins said he was concerned the Senate would continue to send more referendum-related bills throughout the night even though the House would vote them down.
"Instead of going through it again and again, we decided to end it," he said. "There wasn't much sense in prolonging the agony."
Mr. Wilkins said the Senate was to blame for Northern Virginia not getting to vote on any referendums this year. He said the Senate continued to push education referendums when the House did not approve of them. The Senate also killed a transportation-only referendum for the region, he noted, because it did not have a statewide education referendum attached to it.
"They wanted to vote today to redeem themselves and say all we want is transportation in Northern Virginia, but they're playing games with this issue," he said.
Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner had been championing a Northern Virginia referendum on a tax increase for transportation since his fall campaign, later adding his support for a statewide referendum to boost revenue for education.
Mr. Warner was visibly upset at a news conference held after Mr. Wilkins told him the House had adjourned.
"What happened this afternoon on the floor of the House of Delegates was wrong," Mr. Warner said. "The people's business was not done today."
The governor said he will continue to press the case that Northern Virginia needs a referendum to pay for transportation projects as well as a ballot measure either in the region or statewide that will funnel more money to schools.
His best option for reviving the issue now appears to be amending a Hampton Roads sales tax referendum for transportation to include Northern Virginia. The General Assembly will reconvene April 17 to consider Mr. Warner's amendments and vetoes. Mr. Warner said only that he was keeping all his options open.
Republicans and Democrats emerged after an hourlong recess yesterday to discuss a proposal that would have allowed voters in Northern Virginia to increase the 4.5 cent sales tax to 5.5 cents with the region giving 20 percent of its proceeds to other parts of the state.
Members of both parties seemed to anticipate a vote after a conference committee that approved one of the measures Friday signed it, allowing a vote to happen. And a similar bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, also was on its way to the House after being approved 33-6 in that chamber. But the House opted to adjourn.
The Senate voted 38-2 for two bills that, together, reconcile the current budget to fill a $1.3 billion gap the state faced by June and provide an austere spending plan for state government through mid-2004.
Later in the afternoon, the House voted 96-1 to balance the current year's bill and 91-7 for the new biennial budget. The House then voted 91-7 for the 2003-2004 budget.
The bills now go to Mr. Warner, and he can either sign them into law, amend them or veto them before the state's April reconvened "veto" session.
"Members of the Virginia General Assembly have come to a timely and civil agreement on the most far-reaching function of state government. I commend them for their efforts to set aside the rancor that paralyzed the process last year," Mr. Warner said in a statement.
Last year the House, Senate and Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, could not come to an agreement on amendments to the current two-year budget because of disagreement over the size of the car-tax phaseout.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Fredericksburg Republican, said budget writers did the best they could.
"We trimmed where there was room to trim. We made the difficult decision to remove excess capacity from our prison system because we can't afford to operate at capacity. We replaced the transportation fund without laying waste to everything else in the budget,'' Mr. Chichester said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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