House and Senate negotiate over budget

Amelia Reddington

Contributing Writer

House and Senate negotiators this week will try to work out the differences, including funding for higher education, in the state budgets passed by their respective chambers to close a $4 billion shortfall.

According to a The Governor’s Proposed 2010-2012 Budget, the 2009 Acts of Assembly contained general fund reductions totaling $214.6 million in FY 2010 for public institutions of higher education. House Bill/Senate Bill 29 proposes additional reductions of $46.7 million GF, or a total of $261.3 million GF.  This is partially offset by proposed federal stimulus funding of $75 million GF in FY 2010.

The proposal states for the 2010-2012 biennium, the proposed amendments for higher education agencies result in a GF decrease of $301.0 million or 8.8 percent when compared to the original appropriation. GF reductions of $46.7 million in FY 2011 and $196.8 million in FY 2012 are recommended for higher education institutions.

Federal stimulus funding of $198.3 million is included for FY 2011, and offsets reductions.  However, no stimulus funding is proposed for FY 2012 leaving GF reductions of 13 to 15 percent. This is in addition to several rounds of GF reductions since FY 2008, leaving higher education with cumulative GF reductions of almost 25 percent during this five-year period according to the proposal.

The House of Delegates and the Senate approved their budget bills on Thursday. The Democrat-led Senate passed its budget on a 30-10 vote, with the support of nine Republicans. The Republican-led House approved its budget on a 61-38 vote, with no Democrats supporting it.

Because of the economic downturn and a decline in tax revenues, both proposed budgets for the next two years would cut state spending. However, there are significant differences in how the competing plans fund core services.

Democrats say the House budget cuts too deeply by taking from public schools, health care and social services. They say it would force local school districts to lay off teachers and other employees.

“I’d rather resign my seat than vote for a budget that cuts this from education and does away with this many jobs,” Delegate Ward Armstrong, D-Martinsville, said. “I could not go home.”

Delegate Lacey Putney, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, defended the document.

“I believe that the budget before us today strikes a sensible balance between meeting the core commitments that we as politicians like to talk about and the burden placed on the taxpayers who must foot the bill,” said Putney, an Independent from Bedford.

To avoid deeper cuts to education, health care and law enforcement, the Senate budget proposal would raise fees for various services and impose taxes on online businesses. The fee increases would generate more than $300 million. For example, people convicted of drunken driving would have to pay an extra $50 to get their driver’s license reinstated.

Putney said the budget debate reminds him of the quote, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” The equivalent saying in the General Assembly would be “everyone wants a balanced budget, but nobody wants to cut it,” he said.

Although there are differences between the House and Senate budgets, there also is common ground. For instance, they both would reduce the state’s contribution to pension plans for state and local employees by $508 million over the next two years.

Lawmakers have until March 13, the last day of the legislative session, to fashion a budget on which they can agree.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said he believes the House and Senate will work together to meet that deadline and to approve a budget that cuts spending and doesn’t raise taxes.

McDonnell has outlined three priorities for the biennial budget:

  • It must be done on time.
  • It must not contain any general tax increases.
  • It must fund his job creation and economic development proposals.

McDonnell said he is pleased that both budget plans achieve the last two priorities.

“We will not forget that the reductions we make will mean hardships in the near term for many of our citizens,” McDonnell said. “There are no easy choices in closing the $4 billion budget shortfall that is unparalleled in Virginia history.”

A conference committee of four delegates and four senators will attempt to craft a compromise budget acceptable to both the House and Senate.

The House members of the conference committee are Putney; Republican Delegates Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, Chris Jones of Suffolk, Steve Landes of Weyers Cave and Beverly Sherwood of Winchester; and Democratic Delegate Johnny Joannou of Portsmouth. They were appointed Friday by House Speaker William Howell.

The senators on the conference committee are Democratic Sens. Charles Colgan of Manassas, R. Edward Houck of Spotsylvania, Janet Howell of Reston and Richard Saslaw of Springfield; and Republican Sens. William Wampler of Bristol and Walter Stosch of Glen Allen.

“I’ve seen some difficult budgets, but never one as tough as this,” said Colgan, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and has been a senator since 1976.

Putney agreed with that assessment.

“In my 49 years as a member of the House, I have not seen a budget situation this bad,” he said. Putney said Friday that he hopes the conference committee will begin meeting “early as possible next week.”

On the Web

For details about the House and Senate budget proposals, visit:

http://leg2.state.va.us/MoneyWeb.NSF/sb2010

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