- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

RICHMOND — It will cost Virginia taxpayers at least $16,100 a day if lawmakers vote to extend the General Assembly session in order to reach a compromise on the state’s biennial budget, House and Senate clerks said yesterday.

Nine budget conferees from the House and the Senate are trying to come up with a balanced two-year budget that will keep the state’s coveted triple-A bond rating and meets core commitments.

Their deadline is Saturday, when the General Assembly session adjourns. As of last night, they remained deadlocked.

The conferees must reach a compromise between the House’s $58 billion budget that meets the state’s basic needs with no general tax increase and the Senate’s $61.5 billion budget that gives more funding to all state services by raising the sales, gasoline, cigarette and income taxes.

Each lawmaker receives a daily stipend of $115, according to the clerks. There are 100 delegates and 40 senators.

In addition to the per-diem charges, each lawmaker is allotted round-trip mileage, between his or her home and Richmond once a week.

In the House, that roughly adds up to about $7,000 per week, said Bruce F. Jamerson, clerk of the House of Delegates. In the Senate, it’s $2,736 per week, according to Susan Clarke Schaar, clerk of the Senate.

It would cost taxpayers at least $483,000 if lawmakers decide to hold a special session for 30 days.

However, lawmakers could decide to return for an extended or special session but forgo their per-diem stipends, Mr. Jamerson said.

Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore told The Washington Times yesterday he would rather lawmakers reach a compromise, but said if they have to meet for a special session they should return only when they are needed. “Don’t charge the taxpayers,” he said.

But the chances of the lawmakers reaching an agreement appeared slim.

Some lawmakers said yesterday they would be willing to extend the session only if the conferees are moving toward a compromise.

“If they are a smidgen close to each other, it would be OK to extend the session,” said House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, Chesterfield County Democrat. “But if they are still miles apart on Saturday, what’s the point?”

Other lawmakers, however, are losing patience with the conferees, one of whom after a budget meeting Monday went to a bar with some of the legislature’s leadership and sang karaoke.

Last night, the House conferees left before 6 p.m. to attend their annual dinner with budget staffers, ending a chance of compromise until at least today.

“I’d like to think we are coming closer, but it’s hard to do when they’re out at dinner,” said Sen. John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican and a budget conferee, after the House conferees left the building.

Delegate William H. Fralin Jr., Roanoke Republican, said yesterday he thinks it’s time for the Senate and Gov. Mark Warner to take steps toward compromise.

“It’s hard to negotiate with a tree,” Mr. Fralin said, noting the House has moved but the Senate and Mr. Warner haven’t budged.

“The worst thing that can happen is for us to leave on Saturday without a budget and put our fiscal house in jeopardy.”

But Delegate Albert C. Pollard, Caroline County Democrat, said the negotiations remind him of the theme song “Eastbound and Down” from the film “Smokey and the Bandit,” which includes the lyrics: “We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done. We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

Since Sunday, the conferees have been meeting for about an hour each night.

Yesterday, Mr. Warner, a Democrat, said the Senate will have to “come down” and the House will have to “come up” if both chambers want to agree on a budget.

“Hopefully, both sides will show some movement,” Mr. Warner told reporters before delivering a letter to conferees urging them to include tax reform in their budget.

“We have to let our conferees do their job,” he said. “I want them to get it done by the 13th.”

If the legislature adjourns without a budget, the governor could call a special session or two-thirds of each chamber could vote for a special session or to extend the session by as long as 30 days.

• • •

The Senate yesterday passed legislation exempting the legislature’s political party caucus meetings from Virginia’s open-meetings law.

The bill originally sought to allow the General Assembly’s Joint Rules Committee to determine which meetings of lawmakers would be open to the public, but it was drastically rewritten by a Senate subcommittee.

The revised version, which the Senate passed 26-14, makes it clear that all legislative floor sessions and meetings of committees, subcommittees and joint conference committees will be open.

However, the bill exempts informal gatherings of lawmakers from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provisions requiring public notice of meetings.

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, Roanoke County Republican, introduced the bill after Mr. Kilgore said party caucuses could violate the FOIA if upcoming votes on legislative matters were discussed.

Mr. Griffith said he will ask the House to accept the watered-down version of his bill.

“It’s not pure, but it accomplishes what we wanted,” he said yesterday.

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