- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

RICHMOND — The nine House and Senate budget negotiators met for less than 200 seconds yesterday, and the only thing they accomplished was tentatively agreeing to meet this afternoon.

The negotiators, who last week were so hopelessly deadlocked on the state’s two-year tax-and-spending plan that Gov. Mark Warner had to call the full legislature back into a special session, were expected to examine various plans and talk about potential compromise.

Instead, they came in, sat down, exchanged a few words and left.

The meeting was the first since the special session began March 18, but not much has changed. House negotiators remain opposed to the sales and income tax increases that their counterparts in the Senate are pushing.

Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, said he expected to get some work accomplished during the first budget negotiation meeting, but the House negotiators had nothing prepared and asked to meet again today.

Mr. Chichester said he was surprised the House hadn’t responded to three different proposals and budget spreadsheets the Senate negotiators offered last week, just before the regular session ended and the special session began.

“We were hoping for a response,” said Mr. Chichester, who also is the Senate president pro tempore. “I guess we’ll wait until we can meet and chat.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan opened the meeting by apologizing, on the House negotiators’ behalf, for arriving 45 minutes late. The meeting was scheduled to convene at 4 p.m. Last week, Mr. Callahan complained that the senators were always late to meetings.

“I don’t have any suggestions for things to talk about right now,” Mr. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican, told the negotiators. “Our staffs need to do a bit more work overnight.”

Mr. Chichester asked Mr. Callahan about the proposals the Senate negotiators sent their counterparts in the House. “I assume you all are working on that?” he asked.

No one responded.

Mr. Callahan said the break was one reason budget negotiators didn’t have anything to discuss. “We’ve been off for two days,” Mr. Callahan said.

“We heard about that,” Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William County Democrat, responded.

The full Senate met yesterday, but the full House won’t meet again until Saturday.

The Senate put forth a plan to end the tax on food and also to remove the sales tax exemption for utilities, allowing those companies to pass the increased cost to customers.

Before the negotiators met, the Senate had a lively discussion that punctuated the growing difference between the antitax Republicans and the majority of the Republican-controlled Senate, which wants to raise the cigarette, sales and income taxes so the state can collect nearly $2 billion.

The Senate’s plan passed by a 28-3 vote after nearly two hours of debate.

The bill’s proponents argued it will give much-needed pay raises to state troopers and local deputy sheriffs, some of whom are living on food stamps.

Opponents said the plan to end exemptions for one industry sounded like a tax increase.

“It is a tax increase,” said Sen. Stephen H. Martin, Chesterfield Republican. “And it will go straight to the consumer.”

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, agreed: “This is hardly in the spirit of compromise. The people of Virginia are going to be shocked.”

But senators outlined the importance of competitive compensation for law enforcement officers and said no matter what form budget measures take, state services will be paid by Virginia taxpayers.

“The idea that we can pass a budget, any budget, without taking money out of someone’s pockets is an illusion,” said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Pittsylvania County Republican.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, echoed Mr. Hawkins’ arguments. “The consumer, the constituent, the taxpayer will end up paying it. That’s part of government.”

The measure would raise about $128 million over two years, and most of that would be devoted to the law enforcement salary increases.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican and a House budget negotiator, had suggested during a forum in Williamsburg on Tuesday allowing cities and counties to increase their local sales taxes by one-half cent instead of increasing the state sales tax.

When Mr. Chichester asked Mr. Hamilton about the plan yesterday, he said he was just putting another option on the table.

“I haven’t committed and no one here has committed to anything either,” Mr. Hamilton said. “If we’re not going to do anything statewide, why not consider it?”

The Senate also passed a bill that forbids political fund raising during the special session.

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