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Senate Democrats overcome divisions on budget, but Republicans are wary

Rosalind Helderman

With about 48 hours to go before the House and Senate release their proposed budgets, we now hear that Senate Democrats have perhaps patched up some of their divisions. But the Republican leadership, once thought likely to join with Democratic leaders in supporting a budget, may be having second thoughts.

By proposing increased fees and recognizing new revenues, Democrats think they've come up with a way to produce a plan that cuts less deeply into public education than that proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) or the House of Delegates.

Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), chairwoman of the Democratic caucus, said today she believes all 22 members, a slim majority in the chamber, will support the budget put forward Sunday by the Finance Committee. "Day to day, we all have a lot of heartache about this budget," she said. "But I do think we're going to have 22 votes."

But now we hear that Republicans leaders, once though likely to join Democrats, are having trouble supporting what the Democratic-led Finance Committee is coming up with.

One sticking point is a proposal made by their own party's governor to reduce contributions to the state's pension plans by $508 million over two years, then pay back the money over the next 30 years.

Republicans fear underfunding the plans is too risky, particularly if the General Assembly doesn't move at the same time to reduce benefits for new hires so the state's pension obligations drop over time. But the Senate's finance committee declined to act immediately on a bill passed by the House to do exactly that.

"Clearly, the two must be linked," said leading Republican budget writer Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol).

Although McDonnell likes the pension plan change, Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) said, "I would look at other alternatives."

Another flashpoint is funding for preschool education, expanded in recent years as a major initiative of former Gov. Tim Kaine (D). McDonnell has not recommended cutting funding. Likewise, Democrats want to leave the program alone--but Senate Republicans believe that when the state is closing a $4 billion shortfall, it would make sense to return the program to pre-Kaine, 2005 levels. "It's problematic," Wampler said.

All sides said they would work through the weekend and hope to come to resolution by Sunday, when the finance committee will meet, publicly show its work and vote to send the budget to the full chamber. "The budget is still very much in play," Wampler said.

By Rosalind Helderman  |  February 19, 2010; 2:42 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate  
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lots of necessary reforms conspicuously missing from Virginia's budget discussion. maybe after the deficit hits $8 billion all the sacred cows and taboo subjects will be taken seriously. maybe not until a county or city flirts with Chapter 9.

Posted by: millionea7 | February 19, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Their hesitations make sense. Why should preschool education be expanded when there is no money to fund federally mandated education levels? This should be cut if there are going to be K-12 education cuts. The state pension oontributions already seem to be underfunded. It also makes sense to contribute to them fully but reduce the pension amounts for new hires.

Posted by: dunfarall | February 19, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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