Legislators Feel The Pressure As They Return To Work On State Budget

by Valerie Garner

Ten days prior to the end of Virginia’s 2012 legislative session the budget fell off a cliff. The Senate rejected both the House and Senate versions of the two-year budget. The 20-20 split in the Senate has kept Democrats on the sidelines and off of key committees that once held back legislation they deemed extreme. Lt. Governor Bill Bolling cast the tie-breaking vote on a multitude of bills this session but he has no say in the budget. Passage of a budget requires a vote by 21 senators without Bolling.

Governor Bob McDonnell immediately issued a press release on February 29 chastising Senate Democrats who without discussion rejected the budgets. “They want more seats on committees and more power. They have put political goals of 20 individuals ahead of the collective policy needs of 8 million Virginians,” said McDonnell.

McDonnell claimed to have had numerous meetings with Senate Democrats. He said this was the first time in history that there was no budget in conference to work out differences. “This is unprecedented, and it is unacceptable. It is not the Virginia way. I call upon my friends in the Senate Democratic Caucus to immediately produce a budget they will support.”

This was at the height of scrutiny of the ultrasound bill (HB462) by Comedy Central, Saturday Night Live, MSNBC and newspapers across the country. On Saturday protesters marched against the ultrasound bill. It resulted in arrests of demonstrators on the steps of the capital. McDonnell turned to the media he had chastised earlier in hopes of turning attention to the Democrat’s obstructionism.

In a response to Gov. McDonnell, Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw and Caucus Chair Donald McEachin on Monday, March 5 acknowledged the receipt of his letter following the governor releasing it to the press. “We appreciate the professional courtesy.” The words dripped with sarcasm.

Saslaw and McEachin agreed that the governor had sought input on the budget. They claimed it was only put to them as a question, “What is it going to take for you to vote for the budget?” They said their responses fell on “deaf ears.” Their Democratic colleagues voiced their concerns on the floor of the Senate, they said. “There should be no mystery about what Senate Democrats value in the budget. We are eager to work with you … rather than simply scoring partisan political points.”

The late night talk show fodder would not fare well in attracting entrepreneurs and talent to Virginia, they said. The list of Democrat’s demands ranged from funding education to transportation that “must be more than tapping into Peter’s pockets to pay Paul’s tolls.” Northern Virginians will see tolls of $12 for a two-way trip.

In a March 7 letter to the governor Saslaw and McEachin laid out their demands in detail. They include in short: indexing the gas tax to inflation, abatement of tolls in NOVA and Hampton Roads, $300 million for the second phase of the Rail to Dullas project, all money for Pre-K restored, $576,000 reimbursement to UVA in defense of the failed lawsuit by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, restoring cuts to Medicaid for nursing homes, restoration of $2.4 million for at-risk child care subsidies, funds for teen pregnancy prevention programs, restoration of $870,000 in funding to the Department of Rehabilitative Services, restoration of $1.6 million for poison control centers, use of the Housing Mortgage Settlement funds for homeowners in danger of losing their homes, and reimbursement of payment for the forced ultrasounds mandated by HB462.  The same day the letter was sent Gov. McDonnell signed the ultrasound bill.

“This issue will not be resolved in the media or on the air waves,” said Saslaw and McEachin.

On March 9 Gov. McDonnell concurrently released his letter to the media, Saslaw and McEachin asking where the additional funds would come from and what taxes would they raise. McDonnell said that they should have brought these issues up earlier.

The legislature is home until they reconvene in Richmond for a special session on March 21. Localities, schools, and many agencies await a budget. The pressure on Democrats is building.

Gov. McDonnell is at the top of a short list for Gov. Mitt Romney’s running mate as he painfully trudges toward the Republican nomination for President. Sunday on “Meet The Press” Dick Gregory grilled the governor over the ultrasound mandate. McDonnell blamed the media for overshadowing all the other bills passed in the legislature. Whether being tagged as the “ultrasound” governor will squelch his chances for VP remains to be seen. Romney is doing poorly in the polls among women but he needs the swing state of Virginia.

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