- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers last night passed a $77 billion, two-year budget.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, told reporters yesterday afternoon that “a lot of heavy lifting was done both with policy and the budget,” despite what he called a “challenging revenue situation” that forced lawmakers to cut roughly $2 billion from the budget introduced in December.

The Senate approved the budget by a vote of 26-14 last night after the House approved it on a 99-0 vote earlier in the day.

The chambers could not agree on when to have a special session on transportation, but Mr. Kaine is expected to use his gubernatorial powers to bring back lawmakers sometime later this year.

The legislature yesterday did pass a bill that would refund the $11 million or more that the Northern Virginia Transportation Committee started collecting in January. The state Supreme Court ruled Feb. 29 that the taxes authorized by a body that was not elected were unconstitutional.

The governor highlighted the $1.1 billion earmarked for public education, $13 million for foster care programs, and $42 million to reform the state’s mental-health system.

“That’s a very significant item in the aftermath of Virginia Tech,” Mr. Kaine said, referring to the April shootings at the Blacksburg campus.

The final deal was hashed out Wednesday between two six-member budget teams from the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The budget provides $6 million for drug courts, includes pay raises for state employees and teachers, and earmarks $30 million for land conservation — $5 million of which is set aside for Civil War battlefield preservation.

The spending plan also appropriates $1.5 million for Alicia’s Law, which creates task forces aimed at catching online child-sex predators, and nearly $42 million for 600 Medicaid waivers for mentally disabled people to receive community-based services, such as in-home nursing care.

Mr. Kaine’s $56 million proposed expansion of pre-kindergarten education was pared down to $22 million, and House lawmakers blocked his push to expand the income eligibility requirements.

“I would have liked more, but we are going to serve a couple thousand more at-risk kids with pre-K as result of the budget,” he said.

The legislative session had to be extended five days to hash out issues muddled by a souring economy and partisan bickering. The General Assembly plans to return to Richmond on April 23 for the regularly scheduled veto session.

The biggest divisions remain on solutions to the state’s lingering transportation problems.

The Virginia Supreme Court on Feb. 29 struck down the General Assembly’s ability to delegate taxing powers to unelected regional bodies. The ruling, coupled with the repeal of so-called “abuser fees” imposed against Virginia drivers, wiped out roughly half of the billion-dollar transportation deal lawmakers passed last year.

Senate Democrats and Mr. Kaine argue that a transportation solution must revive the regional plans and include new revenue for statewide maintenance. Mr. Kaine yesterday suggested an increase to the car-titling tax.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, raised the idea of calling on localities to raise some taxes, including on home sales, and the state to impose other levies.

“Let’s just come back and knock this thing out and then we can talk about a statewide fix,” Mr. Albo said.

Meanwhile, a majority of the House Republican Caucus sent a letter urging Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, to “find a solution that does not require hard-working families and businesses across Virginia to pay even higher taxes.”

“In light of the court’s decision, some in the General Assembly have recently suggested that statewide tax increases are needed to adequately address our transportation needs,” the letter read. “We are writing to express our opposition to legislation imposing a statewide tax increase to fund transportation.”

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