- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2012

RICHMOND — A leading Democrat said Sunday the Senate’s budget probably would not pass the full chamber at this point, potentially throwing the process of approving Virginia’s two-year, $85 billion spending proposal into a protracted partisan standoff.

The House and Senate money committees each signed off on their respective spending plans Sunday. Both increase funding from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget for public schools and programs for the disabled; give relief to localities grappling with their bottom line, and boost salaries for state employees who have gone four years without raises.

Direct aid to public education in the House Appropriation Committee’s proposal totals $13.2 billion — a net of $133 million more than Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, had in his budget.

The Senate’s plan, for its part, increases funding by a net $165 million over the governor’s budget, though general fund direct aid to kindergarten through 12th grade for fiscal 2014 would still remain below where it was in 2007.

Both budgets would also restore funds for “safety net” programs at free clinics and health centers across the state that had been targeted for a 50 percent reduction in fiscal 2014. They also provide about $200 million of new funding to colleges to help keep tuition rates in check and target programs in science, technology, engineering, math and health.

The House budget passed out of committee unanimously.

The Senate’s version passed the GOP-controlled Finance Committee on a party-line, 9-6 vote. But Democrats won significant concessions. Mr. McDonnell’s proposal to increase the part of the state sales tax devoted to transportation was stripped out. And the budget partially restored money for a Cost of Competing Adjustment (COCA) for support personnel that largely affects Northern Virginia school districts, for example.

However, Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said the negotiation process is far from over.

“There’s just some things that we’ve got to work out,” he said. “There’s a lot of stumbling blocks along the way. It’s called the political process.”

Democrats have strongly objected to how Republicans organized the Senate on the first day of session, using Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote to set up the chamber with a working majority despite a 20-20 split. Mr. Bolling has ruled his tie-breaking authority does not extend to the budget, however, and so it would need at least one Democratic vote to pass.

Mr. Saslaw said he didn’t know whether anything would change before a floor vote on the budget scheduled for Thursday, but pointed out that Senate Republicans voted in lockstep against the budget in 2008, the session after Democrats had won control of the chamber.

“But absent zero changing, there probably won’t be a Senate budget,” he said. “Zero changing of a lot of things.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican, said he was surprised about the votes.

“I’m disappointed that the budget’s being used for some purpose other than construction of a document to serve the people of the commonwealth,” he said. “Hopefully, as the week unfolds we’ll be able to get back together.”

But Democratic sources dismissed the notion that the Democrats’ opposition to the budget was part of an attempt to get Republicans to reshuffle committees, saying the votes were about taking the already-amended proposal and making it better.

The Senate budget would also further reduce cuts in state aid to localities by up to $50 million in the next fiscal year, and the House would restore them by $70 million over the two-year period.

The House and the Senate each proposed 2 percent salary increases for state employees and a similar increase for faculty at higher-education institutions. The House has set aside a $42 million reserve fund to steel for potential revenue decreases, but if the state hits its projections, the raises for state employees would take effect.

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