- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

RICHMOND — An unusually contentious budget debate in the Senate has the Democrat in charge of the chamber’s Finance Committee considering replacing Republicans who sit on the team responsible for negotiating a final spending plan.

“We’ll confirm it Monday,” Senate Finance Chairman Charles J. Colgan told The Washington Times.

The Senate Thursday passed a $78 billion two-year budget after more than 15 votes fell largely along 21-19 party lines. The Senate’s spending plan, along with the House version, will go this week to a conference committee charged with reconciling the differences.

At stake will be a nickel increase in the gas tax over the next five years, a signature initiative of Gov. Tim Kaine’s that would expand prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds from low-income families, and the amount to be drawn down from the state’s reserve rainy-day fund.

The Senate, which is in the hands of Democrats for the first time in a dozen years, passed the gas tax and the prekindergarten expansion and approved a $420 million drawdown from the $1.3 billion rainy-day fund. The House, which is controlled by Republicans, did not increase the gas tax, removed Mr. Kaine’s initiative and advocated a $225 million withdrawal from the rainy-day fund.

The conference committee tasked with negotiating the final budget is traditionally made up of a bipartisan group of four or five senior members from each chamber. Members of the committee, which meets behind closed doors, are appointed by the head of the Finance Committee.

Earlier this year, Mr. Colgan said the committee likely would include himself, Democrats R. Edward Houck of Spotsylvania and Janet D. Howell of Fairfax, and Republicans William C. Wampler Jr. of Bristol and Walter A. Stosch of Henrico.

But after the tense week of negotiations, some close to Mr. Colgan say he is thinking about shaking up the budget team to strengthen his party’s position in the conference committee.

Mr. Houck, who said on Thursday he almost felt as if he had been “sucker-punched” by the breadth of Republican opposition during the budget debate, said it is the “chairman’s call” on whether the committee should get a face-lift.

“I think that is under consideration as we speak,” he said.

Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax Republican, said that his party’s solidarity during the Senate’s budget negotiations will help during the conference committee.

“We have good teamwork going on down the hall with the members of the House of Delegates,” he said.

Some Senate Republicans privately say it is unlikely Mr. Colgan will replace the GOP budget negotiators with Democrats, but they say they suspect he will replace Mr. Wampler and Mr. Stosch — who were chosen because of their seniority on the Finance Committee — with more moderate Republicans who have less seniority.

Mr. Wampler and Mr. Stosch throughout last week criticized Senate Democrats and Mr. Kaine, saying lawmakers should not draw from the reserves while at the same time proposing to spend millions on new programs. The state also faces a projected $2 billion slowdown in state revenue growth through 2010.

“I believe that the Senate Democrats believe in the governor’s budget just as strongly as we believe you shouldn’t raid the rainy-day fund to pay for new programs and that you should cut school construction or raid the lottery profits to pay for new programs,” Mr. Wampler said.

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn March 8.

However, the 2004 and 2006 General Assembly sessions — the last two sessions during which Virginia governors presented state budgets — went into overtime. In each instance, the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans, included tax increases in the budget despite opposition from House members.

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