- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

RICHMOND — The House and Senate money committees yesterday passed competing two-year budgets, with the House using part of a $1.4 billion surplus for road projects and the Senate seeking higher taxes to come up with a long-term transportation fix.

The spending blueprints outline funding for schools, public safety, health care and other key state services.

While they differ on critical elements, both budgets include tax relief for Virginians, pay raises for teachers and other state workers and funding for tougher sexual-predator laws and for the Jamestown 2007 celebration of Virginia’s 400th birthday.

The two plans support repealing the estate tax imposed posthumously on millionaires and creating a sales-tax holiday for school supplies.

Both budgets also include large deposits to the state’s rainy-day fund and more than $200 million for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay and water improvement.

“When times are good, as they are now, we owe it to the people of Virginia to bank some of this revenue growth in areas that have been used in the past to shore up our budgets,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester.

Neither spending outline is final. A handful of key House and Senate lawmakers will negotiate a final two-year budget before the end of the session, scheduled to adjourn March 11.

Transportation is likely to be the toughest sticking point. There are deep philosophical differences between the two chambers on how to ease traffic and increase funding for public transit.

The debate over transportation funding — and potential tax and fee increases — comes two years after the Republican-controlled legislature passed a $1.38 billion tax increase.

House Republicans say there is no appetite for further tax increases. House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, said in a statement yesterday it would be “irresponsible” to ask Virginians to pay higher taxes.

The House plan would raise $2.1 billion over four years for transportation, and help fund projects such as widening westbound Interstate 66 from the District to Falls Church. It relies on debt, increased fees on abusive drivers and $600 million in surplus dollars.

It also would create a dedicated funding stream of $40 million a year for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The House estimates this would create $700 million in new transportation funding for Northern Virginia over 10 years.

“Unlike the Senate and governor who have defined the transportation crisis in terms of raising taxes, the House plan specifically addresses choke points and other measures that voters can identify with,” said House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican.

But Mr. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, said using general fund money for transportation will drain support from education and other core services.

“In today’s global economy, one needs to have a long-range view of transportation,” he said. “We knew that we could not look to surplus general funds to address our needs in transportation.”

The Senate plan, approved 34-6 last week, would raise $4 billion over four years by increasing the taxes on gasoline, auto sales and home sales, as well as car-registration fees.

There is more agreement on other areas of the budget.

Both the House and Senate budgets give state workers a 4 percent raise this year and increase the state workers’ mileage-reimbursement rate from 32.5 to 44.5 cents per mile.

The Senate budget includes a 3 percent raise next year, and the House recommends a pay raise in the second year, the amount of which would be determined in the 2007 session.

The Senate endorses Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s suggested 4 percent pay raise for teachers, while the House has recommended a 3 percent raise.

The House includes a 4 percent raise for college faculty the first year and 2 percent for the second year. The Senate budget funds an average 3.65 percent raise for college faculty the first year and 3 percent the second year.

Both spending plans also include an additional $1.3 billion for public schools to adjust the state’s Standards of Quality, a set of guidelines that address student-teacher ratios and salaries, among other things.

The House budget includes an unusual amendment that appears to target Mr. Kaine’s secretary of the commonwealth, Daniel G. LeBlanc, who is subject to legislative confirmation. House Republicans don’t like Mr. LeBlanc, who had been president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, and are considering rejecting his appointment.

The proposed amendment states that if a nominee’s name is withdrawn during the session and the nominee is reappointed after the session, the person would not receive pay.

Also, the House stripped language former Gov. Mark Warner included in the budget that would have added sexual orientation to the state’s nondiscrimination policy.

The House plan also would increase the $950 million cap placed on the state’s car-tax relief program to $1 billion, allowing 70 percent car-tax relief to remain in place for at least one more year.

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