Sunday, February 27, 2005

RICHMOND — The 2005 Virginia General Assembly yesterday adjourned a day late after adopting amendments to the state’s two-year budget and agreeing to spend about $850 million on transportation.

With no debate, the House yesterday voted 92-1 for the $63 billion spending plan and the Senate approved it unanimously. Both chambers adjourned the session, which went into overtime for a day, without fanfare just before 2 p.m. yesterday.

Delegate Mark L. Cole, Fredericksburg Republican, was the lone dissenter on the spending plan. “I would have liked to have seen a little more tax relief in there,” Mr. Cole said after the vote.

Mr. Cole, who also voted against the budget last year, said he especially wanted to see the phaseout of the car tax, a measure that failed this year and one that House Republicans said yesterday they will resurrect next year.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester told his colleagues he did not get everything he wanted in the budget, which he and 10 other negotiators hammered out over the past week.

“That’s what compromise is all about,” the Stafford County Republican said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. said he was satisfied with the final outcome.

“It ended up the greatest House victory that we’ve ever had,” the Fairfax County Republican said.

The spending plan uses a $1.2 billion surplus created by the booming economy to help clean the Chesapeake Bay and end the accelerated sales-tax collection for about 9,700 businesses, or 98 percent of the state’s retailers. This type of collection, which requires large businesses to pay sales taxes based on the prior year’s sales, started in 2002 as a quick fix to balance the budget.

The $848 million transportation plan — which pays off debt, improves highway rest stops and includes some money for mass transit — is the equivalent of raising the gasoline tax by 6 cents, Mr. Callahan said.

Many see the $848 million as a “down payment” to a more significant investment in the future.

“This is a first step,” House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, said yesterday, promising to continue looking at “innovative” transportation solutions.

The final spending agreement gives teachers a 3 percent raise, beginning Dec. 1. College faculty will receive an average 4.2 percent raise, effective July 1, with some professors and staff receiving as much as a 4.8 percent raise.

State-supported local workers will receive a 4.4 percent raise, beginning Dec. 1. State workers in November will receive a 3 percent pay increase, and many senior workers will receive a salary adjustment based on years of service and performance, for an average additional pay raise of 1.5 percent.

The budget sets aside $2 million for the purchase of land in Prince William County to create a new forensics lab in Northern Virginia. The forensics lab in Norfolk received a significant funding increase.

Gov. Mark Warner, who was attending a National Governors Association meeting in the District yesterday, praised the final budget agreement.

The legislature’s “continued adherence to fiscal discipline will help sustain the progress we have made and the rebounding economy Virginians now enjoy,” said Mr. Warner, a Democrat.

The budget allots $30.6 million to 187 non-state agencies, ranging from $125,000 for a Cold War Museum in Northern Virginia to $1.5 million for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Mr. Callahan said he obtained the $2 million he wanted for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which is planning the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown in 2007.

“This was the best year I’ve ever had down here,” he said.

The Republican-controlled legislature will return to the Capitol April 6 to consider the governor’s vetoes and amendments to the more than 900 bills approved during this session.

This year’s session took on a vastly different tone than last year’s, when lawmakers spent an unprecedented 115 days feuding over taxes and spending.

Many significant bills passed this year, but did not attract as much attention as some of the legislation involving social issues such as abortion and same-sex unions.

For example, lawmakers ended the state portion of the grocery tax. Under the cut, a family that spends $100 a week on groceries now will save $78 per year. The cut takes effect July 1.

The legislature also passed a sweeping medical-malpractice reform measure that lawmakers think will help keep doctors in Virginia.

The bill requires expert-witness certification, allows doctors to show empathy to patients without being held liable and requires the state Medical Review Board to evaluate physicians who have settled three or more malpractice settlements.

The legislature also approved a measure that would give some of the state’s public colleges more independence from state regulations in exchange for less state money. Mr. Warner said he intends to put his “stamp” on the bill with some amendments.

Much of the session focused on bills lawmakers did not approve.

Many legislators were embarrassed when the state received international attention for a bill that would have imposed a $50 fine for persons whose pants exposed their underwear. A Senate committee killed the measure.

Lawmakers also rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed prayer in public schools, and a bill that would have required adoption officials during the screening process to ask a candidate if he or she is a homosexual.

In the last days of the session, senators thanked Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who has served as president of the Senate since 2002. Mr. Kaine is running for the Democratic nomination for governor and is expected to face former Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican.

In addition to a governor, voters will elect a new attorney general and lieutenant governor in November, along with all 100 House delegates.

Yesterday, lawmakers bid a temporary farewell to the Capitol, which will undergo an extensive renovation. They are expected to return to the Capitol in 2007.

The members of the governor’s office, legislative clerks and police who work in the Capitol will move in April to the old state library, where lawmakers will hold legislative sessions next year.

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