- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

RICHMOND — The House and Senate yesterday presented their amendments to the state budget, each plan relying on a $1.2 billion revenue surplus to fund pay raises for state workers, transportation and the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

The key difference between the two proposals is the amount of money set aside for transportation: The House appropriated $1.03 billion and the Senate set aside $670 million.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, who last year proposed a hefty tax package that included more than $1 billion for transportation, said transportation remains an “unfinished business” that lawmakers must fully address in the future.

“Every little bit helps, but it is not the comprehensive package that we envisioned last year,” the Stafford Republican said. “We know transportation is an enormous bill stuffed deep in the back of the drawer. Our plan is that next year we will take the bold steps required to take that bill out of the drawer and collectively figure out how to pay for it.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. said the House transportation plan is the “largest infusion of new funding in 20 years.”

The House transportation proposal would pay for highway, transit and rail projects and fund public-private partnerships to improve highways.

Delegate Joe T. May, a Leesburg Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, said the proposal includes $528 million in ongoing transportation funding in addition to the one-time cash infusions.

“While this by no means will solve all the problems facing our transportation system, it is a giant leap forward,” he said.

Neither proposal differs greatly from the budget Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, presented in December.

Both proposals reduce the food tax and use about $250 million to end the accelerated sales tax collection procedure, under which large businesses are required to pay sales taxes based on the prior year’s sales. The procedure began in 2002 as a quick fix to balance the state budget. Both plans also help pay for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

None of these figures is set in stone. A conference committee made up of a handful of powerful senior lawmakers from each chamber will decide on the final plan in the coming weeks.

It is unlikely this year’s budget negotiations will be as rancorous and protracted as those last year, when lawmakers fought over tax increases and spending. The stalemate caused the session to last an unprecedented 115 days.

The outcome was a $60 billion budget funded by a $1.38 billion tax increase. Many of the hard feelings from last year linger, but no one expects a similar fight because all 100 House delegates are up for re-election in November.

“I think everybody is pretty anxious to get out of here,” Mr. Chichester said.

There are minor differences in the state worker salary increases between the two proposals.

The Senate budgets an average 4 percent raise for state workers, based on a performance evaluation. The Senate also would give state-supported local employees such as deputy sheriffs a 3 percent raise.

The House proposes a 3 percent raise for state workers and includes $15 million to give salary increases to some senior state employees who have not had performance adjustments. Under that plan and based on years of service, the average state worker would receive an additional 1.5 percent increase.

Teachers would get a 2.5 percent salary increase under the House plan or a 3 percent raise under the Senate proposal. College faculty would get a 3 percent raise under the House proposal or an average raise of 4.2 percent under the Senate plan. Under the Senate plan, no teacher would receive less than a 4 percent pay raise.

Both Mr. Callahan and Mr. Chichester urged fiscal restraint despite record growth in the state’s economy.

“True, we are realizing the gains from a rejuvenated economy, but we all know that more jingle in your pocket doesn’t mean a surplus if you have unpaid bills that you’ve stuffed in the drawer,” Mr. Chichester said, noting that in the booming late 1990s spending money on new programs and ongoing activities was “questionable.”

“When the dam burst, as it always does, we discovered we had built our budget on soggy ground,” he said. “We are intent upon not repeating that mistake this year.”

Mr. Callahan, Fairfax Republican, agreed. “We can ill afford to repeat mistakes of the past, where in times of growth we created costly new programs before fulfilling previously made commitments,” the Fairfax Republican said. “Restraint is necessary if we are to match our budget to the constraints of our ongoing revenue stream; in other words, not dig ourselves into a new hole.”

The House plan includes $2 million to create a forensics laboratory in Northern Virginia. The forensics lab in Norfolk also would receive a significant funding increase.

The Senate plan initiates a public-private partnership to build the forensics lab in Northern Virginia at the Prince William Innovations technology park.

In December, Mr. Warner presented lawmakers with a two-year, $62.7 billion budget that used the state’s surplus to fund transportation projects and gave state workers a 3 percent pay raise. It also included the food tax cut.

Mr. Warner said yesterday that the proposals seemed responsible.

“Both the House and Senate budgets substantially focus the resources available on one-time expenses and mandated cost increases, instead of creating new commitments that may not be sustainable in the long run,” he said.

“In this time of extraordinary growth in some of our most volatile revenue sources, I am pleased to see the legislators adhere to the fiscally conservative approach we took in the introduced budget. … I am confident that at the end of this process, we will have produced a strong and responsible spending plan for the commonwealth.”

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