- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2012

RICHMOND — Virginia budget negotiators have agreed on a new two-year, $85 billion spending plan, but the Senate’s leading Democrat said Thursday his party would not deliver the necessary votes to pass it.

Senate Democrats had pushed for additional money for toll relief in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which was not included in a final report by a conference committee charged with reconciling versions of the budget passed by the House and by the Senate last month.

“You ain’t got 21 votes in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said during a tense meeting Thursday afternoon. “Not now, not next week, not next month, not in June. That’s the way it is.”

The 40-member chamber is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, so the budget would need at least a modicum of bipartisan support to pass. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, cannot break ties on budget matters.

Conferees had been reporting steady progress on items such as education and health and human resources, but things grew heated in the late-afternoon meeting also attended by Martin Kent, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s chief of staff, and Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton.

A letter was distributed to legislators at the meeting saying that the McDonnell administration stood by its pledge to contribute $150 million to Phase 2 of the 23-mile, $6 billion Dulles Metrorail project, but could not provide more.

“At this time, providing additional funding on top of the $150 million would pose serious burdens on the Six-Year Improvement Program (SYIP) and would likely lead to the cancellation or delay of other projects,” reads the draft letter from Mr. Connaughton.

Mr. Saslaw and Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat, were incensed. Ms. Howell and Sen. Mark R. Herring, Loudoun Democrat, had pushed for an additional $300 million in the Senate budget to help control the rising costs of tolls on the Dulles Toll Road that are helping fund the project.

Mrs. Howell said that relatively speaking, the state’s offer was “peanuts,” pointing out that Governing Magazine recently ranked Rail-to-Dulles as the country’s biggest infrastructure project right now.

“Commuters going back and forth are paying for the most important project in the country,” she said. “And there’s something seriously wrong here, and the state needs to step up and do its part.”

Republicans, though, said borrowing more money to mitigate tolls did not make sense.

“From my perspective, you’re throwing $300 million at something that a lot of people have a lot of questions from outside of Northern Virginia, so I don’t think it’s the pure project it’s being characterized as,” said House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican.

Republicans said Democrats would have difficulty voting against a budget that restored much of what they had asked for, such as money to help offset the higher cost-of-living for Northern Virginia education workers.

The legislature was forced into a special session to complete the budget after Democrats used their 20 votes two times to block spending plans during the regular session.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Richmond on April 17 for a vote on the budget, a day before they are slated to act on any of Mr. McDonnell’s proposed amendments or vetoes on legislation passed during the session. The current fiscal year ends June 30.

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