In six days, the legislature’s money committees are scheduled to report the first drafts of their budgets.
It’s known as “Budget Sunday” around here — an afternoon filled with stacks of briefing papers, hundreds of pages that contain the fate (or at least an initial indication of one) for localities and services that receive state money.
But with the clock ticking, there’s growing concern in Capitol Square about what might be in those budget proposals.
“There a lot of difference of opinion about how do we address this $2 billion problem,” said state Sen. Edd Houck (D-Spotsylvania) in an interview last week.
The “second two billion,” as it’s commonly called here, is the budget shortfall that remains after former Gov. Tim Kaine’s proposed cuts.
Before he left office Kaine, a Democrat, used reductions to eliminate about half of the state’s $4.2 billion deficit. He recommended lawmakers use a tax increase to fill the other half.
But with Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) promising to veto any budget bill that contains a tax increase, Senate Democrats are split about what to do next.
Houck said it is possible that the Senate Finance Committee could fail to come up with a budget plan by the Sunday deadline.
The gist is this: some Senators believe a tax increase is the only way to avoid unpalatable cuts to already austere programs and services; others believe it is futile to include a tax increase that the governor certainly will veto.
NO FORMAL PROPOSALS
Complicating the negotiations is the fact that McDonnell did not offer formal budget amendments at the start of the legislative session.
Every governor in modern Virginia history has done so, but the governor has said he prefers to offer private guidance to lawmakers, instead.
The move infuriated Democrats.
Senators have taken repeated shots at McDonnnell during floor speeches. The Democratic Party of Virginia launched a new Web site, slamming the governor’s budget plan.
“There’s little or no public dialogue because no one knows specifically what we’re talking about,” Houck told me.
The state GOP fired back with its own video, and House Republican lawmakers say McDonnell has been incredibly helpful to them.
“I think he is communicating and is doing a good job of letting us know what his priorities are,” said Del. Steve Landes (R-Augusta).
Landes said the House Appropriations Committee is on track to report a budget on time.
He said the committee chairman, Del. Lacey Putney (I-Bedford) told the governor that formal budget amendments were unnecessary.
“We’re going to be prepared to do the people’s business,” Landes said.
McDonnell’s budget chief — Finance Secretary Ric Brown — met privately with senators last week, outlining areas in which McDonnell recommeded cuts.
The list included $700 million in reductions to public education and a $700 million hit to state employee compensation — including the Virginia Retirement System.
Depending on who you ask, the list was either very precise or very generic.
“Those were less than specific,” Houck said. “So we’re still waiting for the governor to send down something specific.”
Stacey Johnson, McDonnell’s press secretary, declined to comment on the private meeting and would not provide a copy of the recommendations Brown conveyed to lawmakers.
Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-Prince William), who chairs the Finance Committee, said he believes McDonnell will release public budget recommendations.
“That’ll come,” Colgan said. “We’re going to get them.”
But most Democrats disagree.
“I don’t think Chuck is right on this one,” one state Democrat told me.
LONG ROAD AHEAD
Regardless of what McDonnell offers — or does not offer — this week, the budget process is far from finished.
The key thing to watch this weekend will be the major differences in the House and Senate budgets, especially when it comes to cuts to law enforcement, K-12 education and the mentally disabled.
Those sticking points will spell out just how much reconciling must happen before lawmakers can agree on one budget — and whether they can do it by March 13, when the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn.
I’ll have in-depth analysis of those plans after they’re released.