- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

RICHMOND — Differences over state public school funding shaped up yesterday as the main fault line for six senators and six delegates charged with putting a new state budget into its final form.

The 12 negotiators begin work today reconciling their competing visions of the $78 billion framework for financing state government for the next two years.

The talks, or budget conference, will bring into play scores of issues. Prominent among them are variances in the House and Senate plans on funding for community services for the mentally retarded, how much of the state’s cash reserves to use to balance the budget and funding for the governor’s pre-kindergarten initiative.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and the Democrat-controlled Senate want to use nearly $423 million of the state’s $1.2 billion rainy-day reserves to help cushion the blow of a projected $641 billion year-end imbalance by June 30. The House would withdraw about $280 million from the fund.

The House budget proposes $38 million to bolster the number of slots in community care facilities for those with mental disabilities by about 800. The Senate budget and Mr. Kaine’s introduced budget call for about $7.2 million to add 150 slots.

Mr. Kaine’s initiative to expand enrollment in pre-kindergarten programs by about 50 percent statewide was cut to about $25 million in the House budget, down from his initial proposal of $58 million. The Senate allocates about $38 million for the program.

The House also wants to create a $41 million fund to supplement state-supported colleges and universities that agree not to increase their tuition rates over the budget’s two-year life through June 2010. The Senate has no such proposal.

But it outlays for public schools and the cryptic formulas that direct their distribution prompted a running debate throughout yesterday between legislative Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats cited an analysis by the General Assembly’s nonpartisan investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, in accusing House budget writers of shortchanging basic aid to public schools — largely teacher salaries.

“What you saw this year was the House Appropriations Committee sweep money out of the basic commitment, which is the commitment we have to pay for educational personnel,” Delegate Kristen J. Amundson, Fairfax Democrat and chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, said during a Democratic briefing for reporters. In the room was Robley Jones, chief lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association, a teachers organization that has waged a public relations battle against the House proposal.

The House applies some of its money, Mrs. Amundson said, to “frills” such as school construction. Eventually, she said, it will harm Virginia’s efforts to boost the pay of Virginia teachers to the national average.

Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican and a teacher himself, chafed at the Democrats’ characterization and countered that the House budget provides $193 million more for public education overall than Mr. Kaine’s proposal and $68 million more than the Senate budget.

Mr. Cox acknowledged that the House proposal provides more money for school construction, something he describes as a desperate need in Virginia’s fast-growing suburbs, and said the House will stick to its plan.

He also countered that the House plan provides teachers a 2 percent pay raise this fall while teachers wait until December 2009 for a 2.5 percent raise in the Senate plan.

“It just drives me wild,” Mr. Cox, one of the House’s six budget negotiators, said in frustration during an interview. “The bottom line is they’ve got no pay raise in the first year. Now how do you do that?”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Cox lashed JLARC in remarks on the House floor, questioning the agency’s historic reputation for impartiality over a presentation a staff member made to the Senate Finance Committee. It’s the report Democrats have cited for their attacks on the House plan.

The first meeting of the budget conference was scheduled for this morning, and the dozen legislators — five Republicans and one Democrat from the House and four Democrats and two Republicans from the Senate — planned to remain in Richmond and continue meeting through Sunday.

They face a Tuesday midnight deadline for bringing a compromise back to the full House and Senate for final approval before a scheduled March 8 adjournment.

The Senate Transportation Committee yesterday endorsed legislation limiting the number of times an applicant can take a driver’s license test to three times in three months.

Delegate Timothy D. Hugo, Fairfax Republican, said some people are using the Department of Motor Vehicles as a de facto driving school by taking the test repeatedly.

He said one applicant has failed the test 80 times.

That anecdote caught the attention of Gov. Tim Kaine. On his monthly radio show on WRVA and the Virginia News Network, Mr. Kaine said: “Boy, you don’t want to see that guy pass it on the 81st and be out on the road.”

Mr. Kaine said he supports the bill, which requires anyone to fails the test three times in three months to take a driving class before being tested again.

The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor.

Lawmakers delayed until next year a proposal to drastically change the way developers help pay for municipal services required by new development.

The House Rules Committee agreed yesterday to postpone the bill to allow further negotiations between developers and local governments. Both sides support the delay.

Currently, developers offer cash and land for roads, schools or parks. Those commitments, called proffers, usually are negotiated with local governments and can be as much as $47,000 for each new house. Critics say the proffers are making houses unaffordable.

Sen. John Watkins, Powhatan Republican, proposed replacing proffers with impact fees, which would be capped at a designated level. Some localities are concerned that impact fees would bring in less money and limit their ability to pay for new services.

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