- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

RICHMOND — Eleven lawmakers tasked with crafting a spending blueprint for Virginia returned to the capital yesterday to resume budget negotiations that continue to focus on how to generate money to fix the state’s transportation system.

House budget negotiators joined their Senate counterparts for the first time since Saturday when the General Assembly adjourned after failing — for the third time since 2001 — to pass a new two-year spending plan. As a result, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, called for a special session on March 27.

“This is round two right now in a 10-round fight, and the commonwealth will win in the end,” said House Finance Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester agreed. “We have never failed to produce a budget on time, yet,” said the Stafford County Republican, referring to the legislature’s track record of having a budget in place by July 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year.

Lawmakers find themselves in a situation similar to the 2004session, when Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, called legislators into a special session after they could not agree on taxes and spending. The stalemate resulted in an unprecedented 115 days of legislative work and the passage of a record $1.38 billion tax increase.

As negotiations wound down after about four hours of meetings, it was obvious that transportation had once again garnered the most attention.

“We talked 100 percent about transportation,” said Mr. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican, as he walked out of the negotiation room on the 10th floor of the General Assembly building. “We get transportation resolved and the whole thing unravels.”

Throughout the legislative session, Mr. Kaine, House Democrats and the Senate agreed that Virginia needs a dedicated source of new revenue to ease road congestion.

Senators want to add roughly $1 billion a year for transportation projects statewide by raising taxes on wholesale gasoline and auto sales, as well as the levy on selling property and the fee for registering a car.

Delegates hope to raise an additional $1.2 billion over the next two years by increasing fines for driving violations, long-term borrowing and a one-time cash infusion of $600 million that will come out of the state’s projected $1.4 billion surplus.

“In essence, we are providing sustainable revenue and they are using essentially debt,” said Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch. “We are tying to see if there is a compromise.”

The Henrico County Republican said discussions touched on solving the transportation problem with a combination of regional and statewide solutions. During the session, the House supported the regional solutions while the Senate supported the statewide solutions.

Mr. Chichester said the negotiators toyed with the idea of allocating a larger portion of the state’s transportation money to Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

“We want it to be meaningful to the areas that are congested,” he said, adding that developing a sustainable statewide plan is still the Senate’s No. 1 priority.

Mr. Chichester said he is not certain whether an agreement would be reached before the legislature returns to Richmond in less than two weeks.

When asked whether there could be a repeat of 2004 when supporters of Mr. Warner’s tax increase managed to “peel off” 17 House Republican votes needed for the plan to pass, Mr. Chichester replied: “I don’t know how someone looks when they are about to peel off. I don’t know how one acts or looks when he’s about to peel. Like when a crab is getting ready to lose its shell, a soft shell crab, I know what a peeler does. Its little fins turn red and you can tell within the next 24 to 48 hours it’s a soft shell crab.”

Budget negotiations are scheduled to resume at 11 a.m. today.


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