- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers yesterday gave themselves three more days to work through a historic budget impasse, extending their 60-day legislative session beyond its scheduled adjournment for the first time in six years.

Most legislators, however, fear the additional time won’t bring the two chambers any closer on their two-year tax and spending plan, and the negotiations among the nine conferees have grown increasingly hostile as each side refuses to budge.

“So enough posturing, enough chest-thumping,” Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, told reporters yesterday in a message meant for House and Senate leaders. “Let’s stop the backslapping and trying to score political points.”

The House voted 97-2, and the Senate unanimously agreed, that the session will continue until midnight Tuesday. Lawmakers will pay their own expenses by forgoing their $115 daily stipend.

Failure to act on the Virginia General Assembly’s No. 1 yearly priority is the result of a stalemate between House and Senate Republicans. The House wants a bare-bones budget with no general tax increases, and the Senate won’t back away from its proposal to raise sales and income taxes to fund enhanced state services.

The divide was further illustrated yesterday when some conservative lawmakers wore lightweight seersucker suits to signal they are willing to stay through the summer instead of giving in to increased spending and higher taxes.

“Our purpose and our apparel signals our conviction that the House must not let the clock dictate our decisions,” said Delegate R. Lee Ware, Powhatan Republican. “Spring is just around the corner. Better we change our wardrobe than abandon our convictions.”

Most of the 140 legislators left immediately after voting to prolong the session, and will take today off, returning at 4 p.m. tomorrow. The nine budget negotiators will meet at 8 tonight to try to bridge the widest gap ever seen between House and Senate budgets in Virginia.

A new two-year budget is the only business left on the table for the session, and the budget conferees now face a deadline of noon Tuesday for a compromise after failing to meet two earlier deadlines.

Mr. Warner lashed out at House and Senate leaders, saying, “This year, they haven’t done their duty. … Both chambers need to make significant movement.

“Here we stand at the 60th day of the legislative session with no plan for tax reform and no budget for the state of Virginia,” Mr. Warner added. “I remain convinced that no minds are so closed that they don’t see the sensible reality that the legislature’s failure to act simply passes the burden on to Virginia taxpayers at another level.”

“How can you agree until you first agree on how much money you are going to have?” asked Delegate Johnny S. Joannou, Portsmouth Democrat, one of the conferees. “The majority position of the House is no increases on income or sales taxes. The Senate has locked in and said [they] are not coming in from [their] position.”

Mr. Joannou told Democratic colleagues that he thinks there will be no budget by Tuesday. Republicans privately echoed the same sentiment.

After Tuesday, the legislators could continue to vote — by a two-thirds majority in each chamber — to extend the session until the budget is crafted. Mr. Warner also has the authority to extend the session or call a special session if the legislature adjourns without a budget.

The state is constitutionally bound to produce a balanced budget by June 30, or state services such as the Division of Motor Vehicles will be forced to shut down and government workers will go unpaid.

But the real deadline comes well before June, with counties, cities and towns held hostage without knowing how much state funding they’ll get.

In addition, the state’s coveted triple-A bond rating has been on credit watch from investment firm Moody’s for months. Lawmakers and officials fear that Moody’s will make a decision on whether to downgrade the rating by mid-April; doing so would force the government to pay higher interest rates on state-issued bonds.

Some lawmakers are so angry there has been no budget agreement they plan to stay home tomorrow in protest.

Lawmakers exhibit a general lack of confidence that a compromise will be reached in time for the Tuesday deadline. Many said they won’t have time to review a budget — if one is presented — before voting on it.

Delegate J. Paul Councill, a Southampton Democrat who has served in the legislature for 30 years, said this is the worst year he’s ever seen.

“It’s stupid for us to sit here and do nothing,” Mr. Councill said. “We ought to go home. … It’s ridiculous to go through this charade.”

Delegates Jackie T. Stump and Joseph Johnson, Democrats from Southwest Virginia, voted against prolonging the session. Mr. Stump said he wanted to go home.

“All they’re doing is playing a game, and all we’re going to do is sit here looking at each other,” he said.

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