- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

RICHMOND — The Republican-led General Assembly yesterday approved a two-year, $60 billion budget that includes a record $1.38 billion tax increase, ending a rancorous and unprecedented 115-day session.

The day’s debates were punctuated with verbal jabs that illustrated the deep philosophical schism remaining between the House and Senate on tax and spending issues.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, praised the bipartisan coalition that passed the budget in each chamber and said time will heal the wounds created during the legislature’s longest-ever session.

The House passed the budget on a 65-30 vote, with all of the no votes coming from Republicans and one independent. The Senate passed the budget on a 32-5 vote.

The governor called the plan the “most sweeping tax reform of any state in the nation” and pledged the state would be “good stewards” of taxpayers’ dollars.

“I am confident this budget and tax reform plan will preserve our AAA bond rating,” Mr. Warner said. “Today the legislature can go home knowing they’ve done their duty.”

The legislature will return June 16 to consider Mr. Warner’s amendments to the budget, the tax-increase plan and other bills passed during the session. Mr. Warner said he will make some changes but will leave the budget’s basic framework intact.

“It’s been a long, hard road, but it’s always nice when you get to the end of it,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican.

The legislature adjourned just before 3 p.m. to cheers from exhausted lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Many said they were relieved to end what they considered to be a negative experience.

“There may be some hard feelings, but we have made some new friends this year,” Mr. Warner said, referring to the 19 House Republicans who broke ranks with their anti-tax caucus to vote at least once for the tax-increase plan. “My hope is that time will help heal some of these hard feelings.”

Many anti-tax lawmakers continued to stand against the plan.

“This is a budget that was conceived on broken promises and constructed on deceit,” said Delegate John Reid, a Henrico County Republican who voted against the budget. “Individual taxpayers once again will carry the brunt of tax increases. This is going to be the easiest ‘no’ I’ve ever cast.”

The final agreement on the budget came with reluctant support from three of the five House budget negotiators, who signed the conference report with a “concurring opinion.”

Republican Delegates M. Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights and Leo C. Wardrup of Virginia Beach noted their objections, along with Johnny S. Joannou, Portsmouth Democrat.

The anti-tax negotiators lodged four complaints about the budget — that it fails to fix the accelerated sales tax collection they say is unfair to retailers, that it does not put enough money in the rainy day fund, that it does not fully fund maintenance repairs and that it does not limit spending.

The objections enraged senators, who unsuccessfully tried to strip them from the report.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, said he “couldn’t care less” about the opinion of the delegates.

“They haven’t been part of the process, they haven’t been part of the solution and now they want to say it doesn’t go far enough,” Mr. Stolle said. “It’s the greatest irony I’ve seen in 13 years in the General Assembly. They voted against every opportunity to raise revenues so we can address core services, and then they write what can be characterized as nothing other than a dissent that we didn’t spend more money.”

The budget allots about $1.6 billion in new funds for public education. It also provides increased funding for higher education, public safety, health and human resources, and state employee compensation.

However, it does not address transportation issues.

The $1.38 billion revenue plan raises the state sales tax from 4.5 cents to 5 cents on the dollar and the cigarette tax from 2.5 cents per pack to 30 cents by next year. It also cuts some taxes.

Sen. H. Russell Potts applauded the legislature’s “investment” in Virginia.

“We stood proud and did the right thing,” said Mr. Potts, Winchester Republican. “We put Virginia ahead of politics. Yes, I hate taxes, but I love Virginia more.”

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