Sunday’s Budget Talks Break Down

You knew it was too good to be true.

Last Friday morning, House and Senate budget negotiators were effusive in their praise for each other, saying they were “encouraged” and “optimistic” about the tone and tenor of talks thus far.

By late that afternoon, delegates were beyond irritated — having learned that senators would not offer a counter-proposal to a long list of House concessions until Sunday.

Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, said he didn’t want to “get into a urinating match with a polecat,” but said he was miffed that the Senate conferees decided not to meet at all over the weekend.

The House conferees offered:

-To agree to $76 million in new or increased fees. Their original position was no fees at all. The Senate wants $326 million.

-To leave $100 million as an unappropriated balance — a rainy day fund of sorts for 2012. Delegates initially asked for $165 million. Senators don’t allow for any surplus.

-To recalculate some of the proposed changes to the Virginia Retirement System, which would effectively reduce the amount lawmakers would pull from the fund to help balance the budget.

Senators showed up about an hour late for their joint meeting with House conferees Sunday, and things went downhill from there.

“I’m trying to see what we got,” said Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, the Appropriations Committee vice chairman, to which another lawmaker added, “Not much!”

The Senate negotiators accepted the House offer to increase fees, but held their position on the remaining $250 million, arguing that that money would help pay for teachers and public safety.

“How are you going to get enough money unless you use nearly every damn one of those fees?” asked Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the chamber’s majority leader.

House conferees said they felt like they were getting the raw end of the deal.

“Where’s the compromise in the fees? Tell me where the compromise is,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, a newly-appointed conferee.

“A number of your compromises weren’t really,” shot back veteran negotiator Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.

Howell maintained that because the House would not accept an insurance rate increase — which funds public safety — law enforcement would take an enormous hit.

“It’s missing. It’s not there — $66 million is not there. You cut it out,” Howell said, pointing over a box of Goldfish crackers and across the table to delegates.

During the nearly hour-long session, lawmakers hastily flipped through dozens of pages of charts. At one point, that was the only sound to be heard, save a few discontented grunts and sighs from a couple negotiators.

Senators offered to come down on their number of furloughs for state employees — from three a year to two anually — but the House held its position, squarely against furloughs.

Delegates believe the plan would cause too many complications for state agencies, with little cost savings.

For the first time Sunday, the two sides also talked about education funding — perhaps the biggest difference between the two spending plans.

The House budget calls for about $630 million in cuts to K-12 over the two year spending cycle. The Senate budget cuts about $130 million.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Colgan, D-Prince William, called the issue “the gorilla.”

“You’re not going to get to your figure on K-12,” Cox told senators.

Senators believe public schools have taken enough of a hit and should be spared from cuts local superintendents call devastating.

“Everything you all do is on the backs of the schools,” said Sen. Edd Houck, D-Spotsylvania.

The Senate did acquiesece to a House proposal that would delay new school bus purchases — saving just shy of $10 million a year.

But that did little to satisfy delegates.

“We’d really like to make some progress here,” Cox said.

There’s always Monday.

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