- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

RICHMOND — Gov. Mark Warner yesterday called the General Assembly into a special session, forcing lawmakers to start the budget process anew with his original two-year $59 billion tax and spending plan.

“The people expect their legislators to do their job,” Mr. Warner told reporters. “I’ve not seen a serious willingness to compromise. … We’re never going to see a plan that every member of the House and every member of the Senate are going to agree with.”

The House and Senate adjourned just after 7:30 p.m., ending a session that stretched from the scheduled 60 days to 63 days after lawmakers failed to agree on a budget.

Both chambers agreed earlier in the day to hold a special session that would focus solely on the budget.

Lawmakers wanted to call a recess, but Mr. Warner, a Democrat, scheduled the session to begin at noon today.

Mr. Warner’s office released a statement saying a break of a few weeks would not do justice to Virginians.

“The people expect better, and they should not have to wait for vacationing legislators to return to work,” Mr. Warner said in the statement.

The mood in both chambers then changed.

During a flurry of speeches, delegates called the governor’s statement “obscene” and “an outrage.” The angry delegates filled out forms to deliver to the governor, stating they were not on vacation.

“I don’t know where the governor thinks I am, but I’m standing right here,” said Delegate Leo C. Wardrup, Virginia Beach Republican. “I’m right here in Richmond waiting to do the governor’s business.”

Delegate Terrie L. Suit, Virginia Beach Republican, said she was “very disappointed” to read the governor’s statement. “I resent this press release,” she said.

“I missed my vacation already,” said Delegate Clifford L. Athey, Warren County Republican. “I could be laying on the beach right now.”

In a press conference announcing the special session late yesterday, Mr. Warner called the day’s events of long speeches and frequent recesses “procedural chaos.”

“That time could have been better spent by the House and Senate actually working on the budget and tax reform,” Mr. Warner said.

The Senate and House are more than $3.5 billion apart in a deep philosophical divide over the state’s biennial budget and have been at an impasse throughout the session.

Mr. Warner said he immediately would resubmit his budget plan, which calls for $1 billion in new taxes and cuts in other taxes. He said he would ask the legislature to use his plan as a starting point. “Let me be very clear: I will settle for nothing less,” he said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, told reporters last night that he favored amending Mr. Warner’s budget to make it similar to his own plan. Mr. Chichester proposes raising $3.8 billion by increasing the sales, income, gasoline and cigarette taxes.

Earlier in the day, the House and Senate were poised to call their own special session that would have started immediately.

House leaders asked Mr. Warner to send down a new budget bill. “It’s time we find out where the governor stands,” said Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican. “The governor has got to be a player in any deal that we reach.”

House Republicans wanted to go home and hear from their constituents about tax increases proposed by the Senate, and then return at the end of the month.

“We need to get home and get refreshed,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.

Delegate John S. “Jack” Reid, Henrico County Republican, echoed Mr. Griffith’s sentiments. “Let’s go home and see what the voters want,” he said.

Senate and House Democrats, however, wanted to continue to meet. That would have forced all 140 legislators to put pressure on the nine budget negotiators to compromise.

The special session can last as long as necessary, but likely will not extend past mid-April. Each chamber can adjourn for three days at a time, and the two chambers can agree to recess for a longer period. The House plans to call a three-day recess today.

Lawmakers are concerned that further delays in the budget process will lead Wall Street’s Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade the state’s coveted AAA bond rating and delay local governments’ budget processes until a state compromise is reached.

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 then, the government will be forced to close state offices such as courts and the Department of Motor Vehicles and leave state workers unpaid.

The April 21 veto session will go on as scheduled, giving Mr. Warner the required amount of time to review the nearly 1,000 bills on his desk.

Before adjournment yesterday, House negotiators once more offered to put the tax increases to a voter referendum, which the Senate and Mr. Warner again rejected.

“The House conferees have made their last proposal. We do not intend to hold education or local governments hostage to the governor or Senate’s sales and income tax increases,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican. “We reject the notion that we must impose a burden on the taxpayers of Virginia or shut down state government.”

“It’s the desire of the Senate conferees to stay here, to continue to meet, to continue to have dialogue about why we want to do certain things hoping they will understand,” he said.

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