- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

RICHMOND — The deadline came and went yesterday before budget negotiators in the Virginia General Assembly finally reached a deal allowing the session to end today, one day late.

“There is white smoke,” House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. told colleagues on the chamber floor. “We do have a budget.”

Lawmakers responded with loud cheers for Mr. Callahan, Fairfax Republican, and his joking reference to the Vatican sign that a pope has been elected.

House and Senate lawmakers yesterday agreed upon several remaining issues, including amending the state constitution to define marriage and passing a bill that denies Medicaid and other public benefits to illegal immigrants.

But the Virginia legislators must wait until documents explaining amendments to the fiscal 2005-06 budget are printed before officially passing the spending plan today and adjourning this year’s session.

This is the second year in a row the Republican-controlled General Assembly missed its budget deadline, though this year’s delay is minor compared with last year’s session, which lasted 115 days.

The $63 billion budget reduces the tax on groceries and includes money for pay raises for state employees and to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. It also provides $850 million for transportation projects — slightly more than Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, proposed in December.

The bill on illegal immigrants denies public benefits to persons unable to prove their legal presence in the United States. A person can use a verifiable Social Security number and other documents needed to obtain a driver’s license as outlined in a Virginia law passed several years ago.

The bill, which passed the House 85-9 and unanimously passed the Senate, was sponsored by Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta Republican, and Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican.

Mr. Albo said the legislation would not apply to illegal immigrants younger than 19. When a person turns 19, he or she must reapply for benefits and prove legal residence to continue to receive benefits.

Illegal immigrants of any age still would be eligible for emergency aid, such as immunizations and pregnancy tests.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has asked Mr. Warner to veto the measure. The governor last week would say only that he will review the bill.

Because the bill passed by veto-proof margins, lawmakers could override the governor’s veto, and the measure would become law without his signature.

The constitutional amendment agreed upon yesterday defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The measure passed the House 79-17 and the Senate 30-10. It must pass again next year, then go before voters in November 2006.

Delegate Albert C. Pollard Jr., Lancaster Democrat, compared the amendment to anti-communist extremism in the 1950s.

“Fifty years after … McCarthyism, we are not a communist country,” Mr. Pollard said. “But we are embarrassed by our overreaction to communism. Today, I’d say that our country is not threatened by gay marriage. Our country and our culture is being threatened by the overreaction to it.”

The stalled budget negotiations came at a bad time for the 100 House lawmakers, who are up for re-election in November and cannot raise money during the session. Legislators did not savor a repeat of the exhausting, extended time they spent last year in Richmond feuding over taxes and spending.

The budget agreement was struck only after the 11 lawmakers negotiating the deal met behind closed doors until 2:30 a.m.

The talks stalled over minor spending items, including funding for the Lexington Horse Center and the tunnel that some lawmakers wanted built between the Capitol and legislative office buildings.

The House had sought $4.5 million for the horse center but agreed to $720,000, negotiators said.

Senate lawmakers dropped their request for the $5.5 million tunnel they said was needed for handicapped persons and to protect the historic Capitol from outside moisture.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers paid tribute and requested prayers for Delegate Marian Van Landingham, Alexandria Democrat, a 23-year House veteran who is retiring because of cancer.

Miss Van Landingham, an artist, did not attend this year’s session while she went through treatment. Several of her bills passed, however, and she sat in on teleconferences related to the budget.

Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat, called Miss Van Landingham an “inspiration,” who has a “wonderful sense of humor, a hearty laugh and a quick wit.”

“We are better for the work that [she] has done, and the commonwealth is a better place,” Mr. Plum said. “Marian fought for those who had the weakest voice. We will truly miss her.”

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