- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

RICHMOND — Lawmakers yesterday said the General Assembly is heading toward an extended session because of an impasse on the budget.

The current 60-day session is scheduled to adjourn by midnight tomorrow, but nine conferees from the House and Senate remain deadlocked over the budget — the legislature’s No. 1 responsibility each year.

Leaders of the House and the Senate said the most likely plan would extend the session three to five days, forcing all 140 lawmakers to stay here without their $115-per-day stipend. A two-thirds vote in each chamber is needed to extend the session.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Warner yesterday said he would consider extending the session if the budget hasn’t been worked out by tomorrow and the legislature hasn’t taken steps to extend it.

“He will consider his options and see where they are,” said Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls. “Time is of the essence.”

Republican lawmakers, who hold majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, said they don’t want the Democratic governor to dictate the process, explaining why they are likely to offer a resolution tomorrow to extend the session.

The Senate has been adamant in pushing its two-year, $61.5 billion budget that includes more than $1 billion in new revenue from increases in sales, income and gasoline taxes. It also calls for extra spending for education, transportation and health care.

The House has offered a two-year, $58 billion budget that includes no general tax or spending increases. It anticipates economic growth and up to $848 million in new revenue by eliminating tax breaks for businesses.

“It’s a difference in philosophy,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester said of the budget impasse. “We are really bent on having a long-term solution to problems. … We’re in it for the long haul.”

If the budget talks remain deadlocked, the average taxpayer won’t notice any immediate changes, because the current budget ends June 30. If lawmakers cannot reach an agreement by then, the government would be forced to shut down, state workers go unpaid, and the state’s courts and DMV offices would close.

A more pressing and immediate concern lies among local governments, whose own budgets are held hostage while they await news from the state. Counties, cities and towns would not know how much money they can allot to transportation, public safety, education and health care.

Keeping the full legislature in town would pressure the conferees to reach an agreement: Most lawmakers have careers and families to return to, vacation plans and scheduled fund-raisers.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Thomas K. Norment, Williamsburg Republican, said if the session is extended, the Senate expects no per diem would be paid. “That’s inappropriate,” he said.

House leaders yesterday said they haven’t formed a plan for extending the session. The best option is extending the session “a few extra days,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.

“We just want to get the problem fixed,” he said.

Miss Qualls noted that Moody’s investor service, which can downgrade the state’s AAA bond rating, is keeping a close eye on the process.

Meanwhile, House Speaker William J. Howell yesterday announced results of a statewide survey that shows 2-to-1 support among Virginians for putting any tax increase plans to the voters in a referendum.

“We in the House are prepared to trust the people,” said Mr. Howell, Stafford County Republican. “A referendum is not our first choice, but is far preferable to a continuing budget impasse.”

Miss Qualls said the poll, which Mr. Howell commissioned, asked “slanted questions.”

“I wonder when they will stop polling and begin negotiating,” she said.

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