- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The budget battle is emerging as the major event in the 2008 Virginia General Assembly session and is revealing just how much the political atmosphere has changed inside the State Capitol.

It’s no longer House Republicans versus Senate Republicans. It’s Republicans versus Democrats.

“The dynamics are different now,” J. Scott Leake, spokesman for Senate Republicans, told The Washington Times. “You have a divided Senate and united House.”

The latest example came yesterday after the usually reserved Senate floor erupted in partisan attacks — all related to differing ideas on how to deal with a $2 billion slowdown in projected state revenue growth through 2010.

The flare-up was tied to the Senate Finance Committee’s meeting Sunday in which seven Republicans made an unprecedented move of voting against the $78 billion biennium budget backed by their nine Democratic counterparts.

Republicans on Sunday accused Democrats of sacrificing core services to advance Gov. Tim Kaine’s new spending initiatives — particularly his desire to expand state-funded preschool to 4-year-olds from poor families.

“We do not believe the governor’s [pre-kindergarten] initiative should be funded at the expense of these prior, long-standing, constitutional commitments to K-12 education” such as cuts to local school construction, said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican, echoing some of the concerns of House Republicans.

Yesterday, Sen. Charles J. Colgan Sr., Prince William Democrat and Finance Committee chairman, said the “no” votes set a bad tone and make the chamber look weak heading into budget negotiations with the House. In the negotiations, leaders from both chambers will jockey for what they want to see plugged in the state’s final spending plan.

In response, Mr. Wampler, a Finance Committee member, repeated the budget approved by the committee is not financially sound. He said it is not smart to take $420 million out of the state’s $1.2 billion reserve fund, while paying for new spending priorities, including Mr. Kaine’s pre-kindergarten initiative.

Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, also a Finance Committee member, countered, “It takes a lot of guts to start kicking around those 4-year-old children.”

After the chamber adjourned, Mr. Leake quipped, “It’s not exactly peace in the valley.”

The verbal sparring is in contrast to previous years when the Republican-controlled House and Senate, led by recently retired Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester, knocked heads repeatedly over taxes.

Mr. Chichester’s power waned last year after the so-called “Gang of Five,” a close-knit Republican leadership team, buckled under the pressure of an election year, saying it needed to deliver a transportation package.

A multibillion-dollar, tax-and-fee package was eventually passed, though some Republicans across the state said they are unsure whether it has done more harm than good.

Still, the intraparty fights played into Democrats hands in the November election, where they cast themselves as the voice for mainstream Virginia and Republicans as out-of-touch leaders.

The Republican majority dwindled in the House, and Democrats picked up the four seats they needed to control the Senate. They now hold a 21-19 seat majority.

Since then, Republicans have held joint press conferences, pushed joint agendas and opposed several Democratic initiatives, including a proposed gas-tax increase the Senate Democrats put into the budget, out of the Senate Finance Committee this weekend.

“I think there is a better sense of dialogue between House Republicans and Senate Republicans,” Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, said. “There are much more open lines of communication and more alignment philosophically.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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