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Posted at 6:25 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Virginia House, Senate adopt competing budget plans

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Fredrick Kunkle

The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates have adopted competing plans to amend the state's two-year $78 billion budget and will spend the rest of this year's legislative session hashing out differences in the documents.

Though both chambers held lengthy debates about some budget items, they each ultimately adopted plans that were forwarded to them on Sunday by their respective budget panels -- the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.

In the Senate, the budget was adopted by an overwhelming 37-to-3 vote. Senators generally agreed to use new state revenues from higher tax collections for Medicaid and education. Those programs had been cut amid the recession. The legislators are amending a budget that had included billions in reductions, paring spending back to 2006 levels.

The increase in revenues has "really put us back on the track of meeting our responsibilities, our sworn responsibilities, for core services," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania).

The budget was the subject of much more vigorous debate in the House. Delegates agreed over Democratic objections to accept a proposal from Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to spend $150 million in surplus cash on state roads this year.

Democrats spent hours arguing that the Republican majority was robbing schools to fix roads, before the budget was ultimately adopted by a vote of 69 to 28.

"I think transportation is important, but I think it's wrong to take any money from education to pay for roads," House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) said. Later, he added, "I can't recall in 20 years of seeing a more striking contrast between the two sides of the aisle than on this budget."

Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said that the House budget effectively chopped $93 million in funding to schools. Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) argued against a change that he said could have drastic repercussions for children who suffer mental illness by overhauling -- and overloading-- the program that serves them. Other Democrats fought against cuts to a host of programs, such as those that help HIV patients pay for the drugs that keep them alive or provide for police officers to patrol certain schools.

But Republicans said they crafted the budget in accord with the message from tax-weary constituents who want to rein in government spending as the economy slowly climbs out of recession. The GOP argued that many of their adjustments were intended to unwind structural deficits and refocus state spending on core government functions, such as transportation.

Democrats Taxpayers "were basically saying, 'We want you to do your budget like we do our budget,'" Del. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said. Cox, who is majority leader, also noted that the House Appropriations Committee, which includes Democrats and Republicans, voted 22-0 to approve its outlines.

"I've grown a little weary about the folks on the other side talking about transportation as if it's not about people," said Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who is deputy majority leader. "Now, transportation is a core function of government. The parents of these children we've been hearing about all afternoon are stuck in traffic."

The two chambers will now go through the formalized process of rejecting one another's plans and will then appoint a conference committee of senior senators and delegates to negotiate a compromise. They must come to agreement for the General Assembly to adjourn as scheduled on Feb. 26.

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Fredrick Kunkle  | February 10, 2011; 6:25 PM ET
Categories:  Fredrick Kunkle, General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, Rosalind Helderman, State Senate  
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