- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

RICHMOND — Lawmakers late last night seemed to be nearing a final deal on amendments to the state budget, after hours of closed-door negotiations.

At 10:30 p.m. the 11 delegates and senators hammering out the last details of the spending plan said they were exhausted but were close.

“A deal could happen tonight,” said negotiator Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican. “We are very, very close.”

If the lawmakers failed to reach a deal by 2 a.m. this morning it is likely they will be forced to adjourn the election-year session late.

The session is scheduled to adjourn today, but stalled negotiations would extend the session until at least tomorrow.

Early in the day, the 11 lawmakers adding amendments to the budget had completed much of the work but continued to fight bitterly about such minor issues as funding for a horse center in central Virginia and a tunnel for lawmakers between the Capitol and legislative officer buildings.

A delay could sour voters and create other political consequences for the 100 House lawmakers up for election in November.

House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., one of the budget negotiators, said the disagreement and delay sends “a terrible message.”

“We didn’t do it in 2001 [and] we didn’t do it last year,” said Mr. Callahan, a Fairfax Republican. “This is three times in the last five years we missed those deadlines.”

The Republican-controlled legislature last year spent a record 115 days feuding over spending and taxes in the two-year budget, but a compromise was reached when several broke with their party to pass a $1.38 billion tax increase.

Democrats, who had controlled the House from the founding of the legislature, were critical yesterday of the Republicans who took over the chamber in 2000 and have since fought over the budget several times.

“We always got out on time,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat.

Early yesterday evening, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, declined to comment on the delay, saying only that he hoped lawmakers will get out on time and that small items such as the tunnel typically stall budget negotiations.

Once the negotiators agree, they must wait 12 to 20 hours for budget documents to be printed and read before the full legislature can take a final vote.

Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican and one of the negotiators, said near midnight Thursday that he was frustrated by the lack of communication among the negotiators.

The House negotiators meet on the ninth floor behind closed doors, and the Senate negotiators meet on the 10th floor. Much of the communication is done by sending notes or staffers up and down the stairway.

“The process is broken,” Mr. Stosch said after learning the House negotiators had left for the evening without notice.

Mr. Moran said the differences between the House and Senate seem “minuscule,” compared with last year.

“It seems incomprehensible that with a $1 billion surplus they are still at a standstill,” he said. “They are having as difficult a time spending the $1 billion as they had raising it last year.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican, attributed part of the problem to numerous personalities.

“The more you have, the worse it gets,” he said.

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