- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

RICHMOND — While transportation has paved over most other matters this legislative session, it appears that state lawmakers want to put local needs back into the negotiating mix to end a budget stalemate.

“I think that’s how we kind of get dragged into the argument — on the basis that some people want to break the deadlock,” said Edgar B. Hatrick, superintendent of Loudoun County schools. “After all, when you start talking about something like the education of children and endangering that issue at all, it is a politically sensitive issue, and I’m not surprised it becomes part of the debate.”

The Republican-controlled House and Senate have been deadlocked on a two-year, $72 billion budget, disagreeing over how to pay for transportation projects.

Delegates want to set aside $1.3 billion in a transportation “reserve fund,” pass the rest of the budget and deal with transportation later. Senators want to raise about $1 billion a year in new taxes and fees for a long-term transportation solution.

As the budget battle drags on, more lawmakers are speaking publicly about fast-approaching budget deadlines for localities.

“Vital issues are being held hostage by the Senate’s refusal to back off their unnecessary tax increase,” House Speaker William J. Howell said at a press conference this week, explaining the House’s intentions.

Mr. Howell, Stafford Republican, said the Senate’s unwillingness to consider transportation later this year could be a ploy “to try to put pressure on the House to come forward and accept the massive tax increase, so the localities can get their budgets done. …

“Perhaps as we get closer to the time when the counties, higher education and the school boards have to do their planning, [the Senate] will realize the need to take care of those people,” he said.

Supporters of the Senate’s budget say the House is trying to raise support for its transportation plan by making noise about how the deadlock could handicap communities.

Gerry Connolly, Democratic chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the House’s plan “has created a false choice” between getting a budget done so localities know where they stand and coming up with a real answer to transportation problems.

“We have to do both,” Mr. Connolly said, adding that money generated in Northern Virginia — about 40 percent of state revenues — could be jeopardized without a major investment in transportation. “If that economy turns south because of the lack of transportation investment, it would affect the entire state.”

If the deadlock continues through next week, education officials will be forced to adjust.

“On April 15, we need to notify employees if they are not going to be reappointed for the next school year,” Mr. Hatrick said. “The major impact is the uncertainty it creates.”

In the 2004 budget impasse, which lasted through May 7, school leaders were in a similar situation. That year, when the April 15 date came and went, Mr. Hatrick “tentatively reappointed” teachers, telling them their jobs were contingent on state funding.

Mr. Hatrick, who intends to hire 700 new teachers before the next school year, said the delay can get in the way of attracting the best teaching talent.

Local officials, however, say they aren’t panicking yet. Many still have a time left before local statutes require them to pass a spending plan.

“We certainly won’t become concerned about any lack of a decision on a state budget until at least May,” said Phil Kavits, spokesman for Prince William County schools.

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