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Pressure on all sides for Virginia's budget writers

Rosalind Helderman

Three weeks into the legislative session and it's time for lawmakers to get serious about getting together what all agree will be one of the most painful state budgets in generations.
The process is not going to be easy for either chamber.

The Republican-led House of Delegates is facing concerted pressure from the right, with various groups urging top delegates to use the opportunity of shrinking revenues to seriously shrink state spending. In recent days, lawmakers have received letters from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Americans for Prosperity, each urging them to reject fee increases that could raise revenues instead of taxes.

The latter letter arrived as an email, subject-lined "AFP response to rumors of fee increases" and came at least in part as a response to a recent Post story that noted that House staff have compiled a list of more than a dozen fee increases left behind by Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in his budget. Eliminating them all would require lawmakers to cut at least $146 million, on top of $4 billion the House already plans to cut to close a budget shortfall without a tax increase.

The AFP is also preparing to release a 138-page "model budget", which advocates cutting almost $3 billion more than the $2.3 billion in cuts Kaine has already recommended. It includes some ideas House Republicans may embrace--like privatizing the Virginia bar, debt collection and other government functions and eliminating any race-based programming or incentives.

But it includes some suggestions they may balk at--eliminating the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, for instance and folding the Capital Police into the State Police. AFP also proposes limiting government efforts to intervene in free markets by offering incentives to certain industries (including, we'd assume, Gov. Bob McDonnell's new program to promote Virginia wine and film.)

Norquist told us yesterday that he would expect to see McDonnell and other Republicans who have pledged not to raise taxes oppose any fee that is not a charge on a voluntary service, used to pay for that service. "Kaine stuck a whole lot of stuff in there," Norquist said. "You strip the taxes out and there are other shards of glass in there."

Meanwhile, it's not like the Democrats in the state sSnate are having anything like an easier time of things.

In a passionate floor speech last week, leading budget writer Sen. Edd Houck (D-Spotsylvania) said that to avoid what he saw as the dismantling of basic government functions, he was prepared to endorse Kaine's recommendation to remove almost $2 billion included in the budget over two years to fund relief from the local car tax. The result would almost certainly be that the local tax on cars would rise significantly for car owners all over the state.

Since he made that speech, however, we've been told by several Democrats that the issue has the caucus deeply divided. Some support Houck's position; others are deadset against it. "That's going to create some problems for us--trying to get together on that," acknowledged Finance Committee Chairman and head budget writer Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-Prince William) last week.

Colgan, who first advocated car tax relief in the 1990s, said he would not support the move. Plus, he said he would prefer to see the Senate propose spending cuts rather than what would in effect be equivalent of a tax increase, which would surely be shot down by McDonnell and the House. "I don't know if we should be hitting our heads against a stone wall on that," Colgan said.

Senate leaders held a lengthy meeting today just off the chamber after the conclusion of the floor session to discuss their budget options. None emerged from the confab appearing particularly cheery.

By Rosalind Helderman  |  February 2, 2010; 3:20 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate , Timothy M. Kaine  
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Next: Virginia Senate dices options on budget, none pretty


privatize higher ed. privatize state services. cut law enforcement. cut all state salaries (incl. judges). new hires receive defined contribution pensions, no more defined benefit pensions. no sacred cows with a $4.5 billion budget deficit.

Posted by: millionea7 | February 2, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

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