- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

RICHMOND The General Assembly, with a midsession deadline looming and a $2.1 billion budget gap to close, is girding for a long weekend.

Virginia code stipulates that both the House and Senate act on their pending legislation by the middle of the legislative session, commonly referred to as crossover. After crossover, only budget legislation and bills passed along from the other chamber may be debated. Only the governor can introduce new legislation.

Crossover is Tuesday.

Leaders in both chambers said sessions tomorrow and Sunday seem unavoidable. Amendments and proposals aimed at closing the budget gap must be considered. More than 650 amendments totaling nearly $1.9 billion were offered to Gov. Mark R. Warner's budget.

Legislators have to explain how exactly they plan to make up Virginia's budget shortfall while at the same time maintain core services. They said they would announce their final budget proposal on Sunday, shortly after subcommittees make their final recommendations.

Republicans are expected to announce today how they plan to re-open and fund 12 Department of Motor Vehicles branch offices that were closed during the October 2002 budget cuts, as well as restore Wednesday hours to all DMV branches, which were also eliminated three months ago.

Additionally, Republicans have pledged to restore $12 million cut from local school-construction programs. With that money fully leveraged, they say there would be $120 million available for 32 school-construction projects across the state.

Republicans said the estimated cost of restoring the DMV to its prebudget-crisis operations would be approximately $17.4 million.

Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., McLean Republican, yesterday declined to offer specifics as to how the reopenings announced yesterday would be funded.

"We will have all those details tomorrow," Mr. Callahan said.

"The devil is in the details," Mr. Warner said when asked about the Republican plan. He called the proposal "curious math," because the estimated savings from the closures was $40 million.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, proposed reopening the 12 branches but maintaining the Wednesday closures, at a cost of approximately $7 million. The money for his proposal would come from money Virginia received as part of a one-time settlement, and would only be available during this fiscal year.

A bill to amend the Constitution and require governors, during economic boom times, to set aside at least 2 percent of windfall state revenue for capital improvement projects won overwhelming House passage yesterday.

On an 84-14 vote, the House approved Mr. Callahan's resolution and sent it to the Senate. If the Senate approves it, the same resolution must win legislative approval again next year, then be approved by voters in a statewide referendum in November 2004.

Mr. Callahan said writing windfall-spending requirements into the Constitution would force some fiscal discipline on government and compel the state to take care of construction and infrastructure needs when it has the cash.

Mr. Warner has cut close to $6 billion from the $52.1 billion two-year budget since last summer. He announced his plans for closing the current budget hole in December and lawmakers have until Sunday to accept or reject his proposals. At the same time, they must also make their own suggestions for closing the gap.

Most amendments offered to Mr. Warner's budget were cut by the various money committees, but some such as a repeal of Virginia's estate tax remain and are likely to be vigorously debated before Tuesday's deadline.

Over the weekend, lawmakers are also expected to address the hot-button issue of abortion as the full House and Senate debate bills that would ban so-called partial-birth abortions and require parental consent for a minor to receive an abortion.

Mr. Warner vetoed a partial-birth ban last year. Yesterday he said he was not likely to support a parental-consent bill.

Tensions between Mr. Warner and Republican lawmakers have been steadily rising over the past three weeks of this election year session. Social issues have predominated, while talk about the budget often took a back seat with the possible exception of those lawmakers on money committees.

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