Friday, February 22, 2008

RICHMOND — The House and Senate, after some partisan wrangling, passed differing versions of a new two-year budget yesterday, setting the stage for a showdown among the senior lawmakers responsible for ironing out the differences.

By the time the day-long debate ended, a decade of harmonious relations in the Senate was over.

On the Democratic side, Sen. R. Ed Houck of Spotsylvania said he felt as if he had been “sucker-punched” by the breadth of Republican opposition. On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment of James City described it as a “very painful budget process.”

Responding to Mr. Houck”s comments, Mr. Norment said he took “extreme exception” to the suggestion he got sucker-punched.

“If I am going to punch you, first of all, I am going to tell you I am going to punch you. And, second, I am going to punch you in your face,” he said.

The budget battle has heated up because of a slowdown in state revenue growth that has created a $980 million shortfall in the budget, which runs through June 30, and by revised revenue projections released last week that show the state will have $1 billion less than the $78 billion biennial budget Gov. Tim Kaine proposed in December.

The Democrat-controlled Senate passed, on a 21-19 party line vote, a $78 billion budget that includes a nickel increase in the gas tax over the next five years and $38 million for Mr. Kaine’s proposed expansion of preschool for 4-year olds from poor families.

The budget also depends on shifting to the general fund $180 million that had been set aside for transportation and transferring lottery proceeds for school construction to basic aid for education.

The transfer of the lottery proceeds was challenged in a surprise parliamentary move by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who serves as the Senate president. Mr. Bolling ruled that the state constitution demands that Democrats garner a four-fifths vote to shift the funds.

The ruling stunned Democrats and was eventually overturned by the chamber’s majority party.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House passed on a 93-5 vote a $78 billion budget that strips out Mr. Kaine’s preschool initiative.

“We could have taken a different course and raised taxes, fees and colleges tuition, as the new Senate Democratic majority budget does. But delegates knew the last thing Virginia’s families and our economy need right now is higher taxes and higher college tuitions,” House Speaker William J. Howelll, Stafford Republican, said after the House adjourned.

Both budgets provide $42 million for mental health reforms — a direct response to the Virginia Tech shootings in April.

Both chambers also passed separate versions of the so-called caboose budget, which sews up a $641 million shortfall in the current spending plan that runs through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

The Democrat-controlled Senate’s caboose bill followed the governor’s proposal by relying on cuts and cost saving measures as well as siphoning $423 million out of the state’s $1.3 billion reserve “rainy day” fund. The House proposal includes a $225 million withdrawal from the reserve fund.

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