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Saslaw's unwelcome birthday present: Senate Democrats divided on budget

Rosalind Helderman

Senate majority leader Dick Saslaw turns 70 today, a fact that was noted with loving humor by his longtime friend and fellow Fairfax Democrat Sen. Janet Howell on the floor of the state senate Thursday.

But the members of his Democratic caucus promptly delivered him perhaps an unwelcome birthday gift, in the form of "personal privilege" floor speeches Thursday that highlighted their division over how to proceed on the state budget.

Saslaw and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Colgan (D) have said they see no use in embedding a tax increase into the Senate budget they will release on Feb. 21, because the Republican-led House of Delegates and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) have said they would reject it.

But Thursday, Sen. Edd Houck (D), also a leading Senate budget writer, gave a sequel to a speech he delivered on the floor a week ago, in which he said he would be willing forego spending almost $2 billion over the next two years to give provide governments money to give car owners relief on the car tax.

The result would be that local governments would almost certainly allow most car owners' taxes to rise. But it would also mean that the senators would not have to cut any more from the state budget than $2.3 billion already cut by Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in the spending plan he put forward for legislator's consideration in December.

Houck's argument: thousands of state and local government employees will lose their jobs due to Kaine's cuts alone. The state should not force even more people out of work by cutting $2 billion more.

Sen. George Barker (D-Prince William) then got into the act, taking to the floor to say he will not vote for a budget that does not change an adjustment to the school funding formula proposed by Kaine that would cost Northern Virginia districts state funds. Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) rose to bemoan cuts to K-12 and higher education that will be contained in the budget.

And Sen. Don McEachin (D-Henrico) said that he, like Houck--but unlike Saslaw and Colgan--believes the Senate's budget must include new revenues.

"Mr. President, I for one cannot cotton, cannot accept the notion that we are about to even begin to conceive of crafting a budget that contains no new revenue," he said. "I'm happy to work with any member of this body in moving towards that reality. But make no mistake about it, Mr. President, we are morally bankrupt if we decide to balance this budget on the backs of the poor, on the backs of those who are vulnerable, on the backs of those who live in the margins."

Saslaw acknowledged the divisions as the floor session adjourned, saying that his only request to his members as the 40-member body works through the budget is that they not make "Sherman-esque" statements that will make compromise difficult.

"It's not partisan," Saslaw said. "In both caucuses, people are saying, I need this or I need that. We're hopeful that we can draft a budget that will get obviously 21 votes or more and hopefully bipartisan. Let me tell you, the way things are, given the oddity of the circumstances, you could wind up with a budget that's got 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans or you could even end up with something that has 10 of us and 11 of them. You just don't know."

His caucus is united about one thing, however. They want McDonnell to put forward his recommendations for cutting the budget, and they will accuse him of ducking the responsibilities of leadership until he does so.

Oh, and if you're wondering how the spry majority leader celebrated his birthday, here's the answer: Instead of running his usual 3 miles through the darkened streets of Richmond on Wednesday evening, he pushed on and ran seven miles.

By Rosalind Helderman  |  February 5, 2010; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2010 , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate  
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