Thursday, February 14, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — Balancing a state budget thrown out of whack by a softening national economy and tepid revenue collections is the biggest challenge facing legislators at the procedural midpoint of the 2008 General Assembly.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, delivered revised revenue projections and proposed budget cuts to legislators Tuesday, just five days before the Senate and House money committees must produce their respective versions of the state’s two-year spending plan.

“It’s much more difficult to do it with a deficit than with a surplus,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, said yesterday after a briefing by state Secretary of Finance Jody Wagner. “I’m getting inundated with calls, ‘Don’t cut me.’ ”

Mr. Kaine’s proposals for closing a $1.4 billion budget gap over the next 2½ years include agency spending reductions, dipping into the state’s financial reserves, scaling back raises for state employees and teachers, and paying for some building projects with debt instead of cash.

No tax increases, though.

After the House and Senate pass their competing versions of the budget, a conference committee will work out differences in the closing days of the session, which is scheduled to end March 8.

Tuesday was the deadline for each chamber to act on its own legislation and send it to the other body, and the budget is not the only big issue still to be resolved.

The two chambers passed differing versions of payday-lending reform, with each saying its approach best protects the most vulnerable borrowers while leaving the small, short-term loans an option for those who use them responsibly.

The House version extends the loans over two pay cycles and limits the number of payday loans to five per year and one at a time, monitored by a database. The Senate bill also includes the database, but it addresses the repeat-borrower problem by allowing those who have a difficult time repaying a cash advance to have up to five extra months to do so.

Those who oppose payday lending favor the House version, while industry officials say it would put them out of business and that the Senate version is more workable.

Last year, talks to reform the industry collapsed in the final hours of the session.

Other major issues have proved less contentious. For example, mental-health reform is sailing through the legislature with broad bipartisan support in the wake of the April 16 shooting deaths of 32 persons by a mentally disturbed Virginia Tech student. Perhaps the most significant reform is loosening the standard for involuntary commitment to a mental-health facility.

Legislation cracking down on animal fighting and puppy mills also has advanced, although some dog breeders and a hunting-dog owners organization opposed the latter. The animal-fighting bill gained impetus from the notorious Michael Vick dogfighting case, which resulted in a 23-month federal prison term for the suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback.

Most bills targeting illegal aliens have died, but a few are still in play, including one that would deny access to public colleges. Another would prohibit discrimination lawsuits against employers who fire workers for failing to speak English.

A ban on smoking in most public buildings has cleared the Senate but seems certain to die in the House, which also has rejected — again —legislation to close a “loophole” that allows criminals and mentally ill people to buy firearms at gun shows without a background check.

Some of the more quirky bills introduced have died quietly, including Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr.’s proposal to outlaw large replicas of testicles that some motorists attach to trailer hitches. Mr. Spruill, Portsmouth Democrat, wanted to make displaying such ornamentation a misdemeanor.

But memories of the worldwide ridicule generated three years ago by another delegate’s effort to outlaw baggy, low-riding, underwear-exposing pants led to the demise of Mr. Spruill’s bill in the House Transportation Committee.

“It sublimated,” said Delegate Joe T. May, Loudoun Republican and chairman of the committee. “That’s the process of turning from solid to gaseous.”

In other words, the bill essentially vaporized because Mr. May never put it on the docket.

“We suffered enough over the baggy pants,” he said.

Mr. Spruill said Mr. May never told him why his bill was buried.

“Even if he was not going to do it, he owed me the courtesy of saying why,” Mr. Spruill said.

A bill by Delegate Jennifer L. McClellan, Richmond Democrat, to make stealing a cat a felony died in another committee. Miss McClellan proposed “Ernie’s Law” — named after a kitten that was catnapped from a Richmond shelter — to put cats on the same legal footing as dogs.

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