- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

RICHMOND — A bill that closes the books on the fiscal year ending next month won belated passage yesterday in the House.

But the critical budget that, if not enacted soon, would interrupt state government funding and spawn a constitutional crisis beginning July 1 found only more heated rhetoric.

House Republicans accused Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, of shrinking from the budget crisis as time grows short.

“He may be working very hard behind the scenes, but I haven’t seen it,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, likened Mr. Kaine to the captain of the Titanic.

The “caboose budget” that makes final funding adjustments for the fiscal year that ends June 30 passed by a vote of 89-0 without debate on the issue.

House and Senate budget negotiators came to terms on the year-end funding adjustments after deferring their most contentious disagreements into the a new budget, which remains unresolved later than any other budget in modern state history with no end to the standoff in sight.

The caboose budget now awaits final Senate approval when the body convenes tomorrow. If that happens, it would go to Mr. Kaine for his amendments or vetoes.

Among other things, it routes nearly $386 million of this year’s surplus into the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund and frees up about $3 million more for public education.

It also provides $4.5 million to demolish Richmond’s Eighth Street state office building, a structure so dilapidated it’s ringed by covered scaffolding to shield pedestrians below from falling bricks and crumbling masonry.

The chief difference between the House and Senate in the caboose bill — expanding a secure lockup for sexually violent predators who face civil commitments after finishing their prison sentences— becomes another area of dispute in the new budget.

There was little optimism that finishing off the current budget equates to progress on a new two-year master spending blueprint for the state agencies and projects, local governments, people who rely on state aid or businesses that hold state contracts.

Mr. Howell underscored the House Republican majority’s unwillingness to consider tax increases necessary to support Senate transportation proposals. He said the impasse can’t end until the Senate abandons its demand for the first new taxes in a generation to pay for billions of dollars in backlogged road, rail and transit projects.

The Senate last month passed four bills — a $700-million-a-year statewide transportation funding plan and three regional plans.

Among the higher taxes would be a 6-cents-per-gallon tax on fuel distribution terminals and options for regions to boost sales taxes.

“If the Senate follows through on its commitment to end its insistence that taxes be increased as a condition of approving a budget, then the end of the current impasse is in sight,” Mr. Howell said.

The strongest words were reserved for Mr. Kaine. When asked whether they thought the governor had been sufficiently engaged in the dispute, Mr. Howell replied: “Well, I’m probably the wrong guy to talk about it. … I haven’t seen him in about five weeks.”

“The governor is not a potted plant,” Mr. Howell said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican, said Mr. Kaine is “not a hands-on governor, and it seems to me if I were governor, I’d be in there trying to broker a deal.”

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said only the General Assembly, dominated by Republicans, can produce a budget.

“Virginians might be better served if [Mr. Howell] spent more time urging his leadership team to negotiate rather than casting about to blame others,” Mr. Hall said.

Mr. Marshall has challenged Mr. Kaine’s contention that he has some authority to keep essential state services going without a new budget. Mr. Marshall said he asked Mr. Kaine to explain his legal strategy and excoriated the administration for refusing.

“If you would have asked the captain of the Titanic, ‘Sir, do we have enough boats in the case of an emergency,’ and you got back an imperious response from the first mate, ‘The captain will consider your request if and when we should hit an iceberg,’” Mr. Marshall said.

The latest any state budget has ever won final House and Senate passage was May 7, 2004. This year’s stalemate passed that milestone Sunday.

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