- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

RICHMOND — Budget negotiators yesterday heard a detailed report on how close — and, in most instances, how far apart — the House and Senate are on a variety of spending items.

However, none of the nine appointed House and Senate negotiators discussed the tax-increase plan at the heart of an unprecedented budget stalemate that has forced the legislature into overtime, working for a record 76 days and counting.

“We’re still working,” said House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican, after yesterday’s 25-minute meeting. “We’re talking like mad.”

Mr. Callahan said there has been no real “substantive” progress since March 16 when Gov. Mark Warner called lawmakers back for a special session on the budget. The legislature had failed to fulfill its top priority of crafting a new 2005-2006 budget.

Hearing the report was the extent of the work conducted yesterday. The negotiators planned to meet again today.

The nine-page report outlined the “issues of potential compromise” in each of the budget’s core areas: education, health and human resources, public safety, higher education, economic development, natural resources, transportation, general government and capital outlay.

The few likely compromises include funding of school efficiency reviews, community rehabilitation programs and prison security staffing, according to the report.

The bulk of the report focused on the budget items where the House and Senate are unlikely to find common ground. Those “outstanding budget issues” reflect the core difference between the $58 billion House plan and the $60 billion Senate proposal that counts on about $2 billion in revenue from raising the state’s cigarette, sales and income taxes.

For example, the negotiators are still at odds over how much money to set aside for, among other things, new prison construction, college financial aid, or the state’s “rainy day” fund.

Another major point of contention is pay for state employees.

Both the House and Senate want to give state workers a 3 percent raise. However, the House wants to implement the raises in 2006, while the Senate proposes to start them in 2005.

The Senate also wants to give an additional raise to state troopers and deputy sheriffs.

Last Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill that would raise about $128 million over two years to fund those salary increases. The House Finance Committee must vote on that plan, but no committee meeting has been scheduled.

The plan proposes to raise the $128 million by removing the sales-tax exemption for utilities, and allowing those companies to pass the increased cost on to their customers. It also proposes to reduce the food tax.

The full House will meet today at noon. Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to hold what’s called a pro-forma meeting. It will be made up of a small number of senators because the body has no business to act on.

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