- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a new two-year $72 billion state budget yesterday, after spending the final day of the more-than-150-day special session duking it out over Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s suggested changes.

Delegates yesterday rejected most of the amendments Mr. Kaine offered Tuesday, and both chambers approved the elimination of the estate tax and put a $50 million cap on conservation tax credits given to property owners who agree not to sell their land to developers.

“We felt there was enough spending already in the biennial budget to not add another $22 million,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, who was acting House speaker because of the illness of William J. Howell. “Particularly when we were talking about transportation all this year, we wanted to make it clear that we were trying to save some money for transportation.”

Republicans accepted Mr. Kaine’s plan to use $6.3 million in unanticipated lottery revenue for public education and about $1.2 million in savings to pay for six new positions in the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness.

To the disgust of House Democrats, their Republican counterparts used parliamentary procedure to force bloc votes on most of the governor’s amendments and closed off debate.

Mr. Kaine’s amendments ranged from $3.7 million for a sewer overflow project in Lynchburg to $3.6 million to purchase open space in Washington County.

“It’s bewildering that many of the amendments requested by House Republicans were rejected as the leadership forced a caucus position on a bloc vote,” said Kevin Hall, the governor’s spokesman. “For instance, Delegates Dave Albo and Tim Hugo should explain why they voted against $5 million in assistance for working moms in Fairfax County … They also claim this action frees up another $22 million for transportation — which by our calculation is about 10 miles of road. If that’s being a friend to transportation, who needs enemies?”

The agreement ends the longest budget impasse in Virginia history, two days before the end of the fiscal year.

“It’s the best of budgets, it’s the worst of budgets,” said House Democratic Caucus leader Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat. “It continues to invest in education and the environment, but it fails to address the most pressing problem of the commonwealth — transportation.”

The budget sets record levels of spending for education and health care and sets aside $1 billion for building and renovating state buildings. The spending plan also includes 4 percent raises for state employees, teachers, college faculty and sheriffs’ deputies. The raises would kick in later this year.

The plan allocates an additional $568 million for transportation — $339 million of which is contingent upon lawmakers finding a long-term revenue source for transportation before Nov. 1. Lawmakers have agreed to return this fall for a special session dedicated to transportation.

“It’s better late than never,” Mr. Moran said.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, still could tweak the spending plan if he decides to amend another measure that ends the estate tax and limits conservation tax credits. The measure is separate from the budget. The bill takes money previously used for conservation tax credits and uses it to cover the $98 million hole left by eliminating the estate tax.

The General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene July 24 to take up any suggestions by the governor.

The historic budget deadlock centered on whether to raise taxes for roads and mass transit.

The anti-tax House wanted to dip into the state’s projected $1.4 billion surplus and free up money in the general fund through long-term borrowing. The more centrist Senate teamed up with Mr. Kaine to push as much as $1 billion a year in new taxes for transportation.

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