- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2009

Virginia lawmakers continued negotiations late Friday on terms of the state’s $77 billion budget, stuck on a small number of issues that could delay an on-time adjournment this weekend.

“I think the biggest obstacle has been not having the time to sit down at the table and have the conversations,” said Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, one of 12 lawmakers assigned to hash out an agreement on the biennial spending proposal. “I think we can work out the policy issues, some of the dollar issues, but we’ve got to have the time to meet.”

Facing the challenge of a roughly $3 billion revenue shortfall - but also expecting an infusion of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funding - negotiators have made slow but steady progress on the pared-down budget proposed by Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in the midst of an economic recession.

On Thursday, the dozen lawmakers reportedly agreed to expand Medicaid services for the state’s mentally disabled and scrap Mr. Kaine’s plan to prohibit retailers from keeping a portion of the sales taxes they collect.

But sticking points still remained. Among them: Mr. Kaine’s plans to allow the early release of some nonviolent prisoners - which has been balked at by the Republican-controlled House - and the governor’s proposal to place a cap on support staff and personnel in schools, which the Democrat-dominated Senate opposes.

Mr. Hamilton, Newport News Republican and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday afternoon the conferees were “very close to final agreement” on what to do with the staffing cap proposal.

He also said lawmakers had agreed to eliminate the early-release initiative - which would allow some prisoners to get out of jail 90 days early - but had not reached final accord on public safety proposals such as funding for drug courts and local police departments.

“We agree with nine things, but there might be 12 things on the page,” Mr. Hamilton said Friday night. “If we don’t agree with all of them, then we agree with none of them. It’s kind of frustrating.”

If the budget negotiations push the legislative session past its scheduled Saturday adjournment, it will be at least the sixth time in the past eight years the General Assembly has gone into overtime, the Associated Press reported.

As the deadline drew nearer, Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, met with the conferees Friday morning at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond.

Mr. Hamilton, for his part, said the Senate’s earlier postponement of passing its budget version until details of the $787 billion federal stimulus package were released - along with the failure to meet with conferees last weekend - has hampered progress on the plan more than anything.

He said conferees may finish negotiations and come to agreement Friday night, but printing the amended proposal may push a final vote on the budget until Sunday.

“Just from a logistics perspective, it takes some time,” Mr. Hamilton said.

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