- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

RICHMOND — Virginia House Republicans yesterday laid out a modest spending compromise that falls well short of the Senate’s demands to raise the sales and income taxes, leading lawmakers closer to adjourning today without a budget for the first time in history.

The House negotiators — four Republicans and one Democrat — reshuffled some of the spending numbers and made some cuts to move closer to the Senate’s position. But the negotiators stood firm against raising sales or income taxes, leaving more than a $3.5 billion gap between the House and Senate proposals.

Late last night, the Senate offered a counterproposal and said the House negotiators must come up with another $674 million in revenue before the Senate will agree to the plan.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith acknowledged at about 9:15 p.m. that there will be no budget by today’s noon deadline, and said he has a plan for what will happen next.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican and a negotiator, yesterday defended the House’s new plan, saying it is “real money, in real time, addressing the real problems of the commonwealth.”

“This proposal is but another opportunity that the House has put in front of the Senate conferees,” he said.

Calling the House proposal “vague,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, said it has problems.

“They moved toward us by $100 million,” Mr. Chichester said. “What we can’t identify … is where the money has come from.” Other senators likened the House Republicans to a “mob.”

“Until they can get people down there who are authorized to speak, we’re going to make very little progress,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, referring to the House. “You’ve got government by mob down there, and until that changes, we’re going to be here a long time.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican, said he was upset with the Senate’s comments.

“That is the most disrespectful statement I’ve heard in my 37 years in the General Assembly,” Mr. Callahan said. “It’s unconscionable.”

Mr. Chichester later apologized for the statements made on the Senate floor, and he said nerves tend to get frayed during negotiations.

When the Senate rejected the House proposal and offered the counterproposal to the House negotiators late last night, Mr. Chichester said, “We need for you to move right up,” and again affirmed the Senate won’t back off its sales and income tax increase proposal.

“We’ve come down approximately $300 million and you’ve come up approximately $113 million,” Mr. Chichester said. “In the spirit of compromise, in the true sense of the word, we’ve come down further about three times than you’ve come up.”

The House budget negotiators said they needed more time to study the counterproposal. “Y’all will spend everything you get your hands on,” said Delegate Johnny S. Joannou, Portsmouth Democrat.

The state is constitutionally bound to draft a new, two-year tax and spending plan by June 30. If a budget isn’t drafted by that date, the government will be forced to close state offices such as courts and the Department of Motor Vehicles and leave state workers unpaid.

The 140 legislators can decide simply to adjourn, vote to extend the session another few days, or schedule a special session before adjourning. They were scheduled to adjourn Saturday, but voted to extend the session by three days, which would bring the session to a close at midnight today.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, also can call a special or extended session, though chances of that are unlikely.

None of the options is politically popular, as lawmakers are likely to face pressure from their constituents and local governments, whose budgets will remain at a standstill until the state reaches a compromise.

To adjourn the session, 51 votes are needed in the House and 21 in the Senate. It takes two-thirds of each chamber to vote to extend the session.

Mr. Griffith said the Republican Caucus is “considering everything” and would announce its plan by the time the session begins at noon today.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, said the minority position is to encourage the negotiators to keep meeting until they reach a compromise.

“We’re willing to give them another three days,” said Mr. Moran, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “This is uncharted territory.”

This would be the first time in the state’s history the legislature has not drafted a new, two-year budget during a session.

If the lawmakers return for a special session, much of the budget process would start over.

Any legislator, or the governor, could submit new budget-related bills to raise taxes or cut spending. Those bills would go back through the House and Senate money committees and new negotiators could be appointed to work through the impasse.

The legislators, who on Saturday gave up their $115 daily stipend to stay the extra days, are getting weary.

“I hope and I pray that they will soon come to their senses and that we can go home,” said Delegate Allen L. Louderback, Page County Republican.

In 2001, lawmakers adjourned the session without passing any budget amendments for the second year of a biennial budget. The stalemate came as a result of a dispute over Gov. James S. Gilmore III’s car-tax phaseout plan.

Mr. Gilmore solved the impasse by allotting the level of funding similar to the past year and making some minor adjustments.

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