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State budget-writers plan to amend process

The process of negotiating the state budget is one of the most contentious things that lawmakers do in Richmond. It takes place in the last days of the session, high on the 9th and 10th floors of the General Assembly building. A group of ten to a dozen senior legislators from the House and Senate money committees are appointed to reach a compromise between a budget approved by the House, and one approved by the Senate.

Mostly they meet in small groups, armed with spreadsheets, coffee, threats and exhaustion, to haggle over line items. Or they send written proposals to the other side, then retreat to their own floor to wait for a counter-offer. These meetings can last until the wee hours, and rarely do the budget negotiators get anywhere near meeting their annual self-imposed deadlines of having a budget ready by the Tuesday before adjournment. Often a budget isn’t ready until the day of adjournment, and the legislature has to stay in session an extra day so it can be printed and then, with just a few hours to read it, voted on. (And several times in recent years, a budget impasse has led to session being extended for weeks or months).

Now Republican leaders say they want to change all that, make the process more open and, most importantly, meet their deadlines.

In a news conference in Richmond today, the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, along with most of the usual team of negotiators, announced a new schedule that they hope will lead to an on-time budget, with at least 24 hours for lawmakers to read it before voting on it.

“All of us… have been concerned about the time frame,” said Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “In years gone by, we never got together until toward the end of it.”

Sen. Walter Stosch, of the Senate Finance Committee, said the process as it is “promotes confrontation when we should be promoting negotiation.”

The proposal he and others announced, he said, is “a new effort to do things better than we’ve done in the past.”

What the negotiators want to do is start talking to each other early on, with at least the committee chairmen sitting down together to talk about policy objectives of each committee and issues they think might arise in their respective budgets.

Then they’d begin the budget conference process as soon as each house adopts its budget, instead of waiting for the procedural steps that require each house to then reject the other house’s budget and throw the thing into a committee of conference.

They want staffs to share spreadsheets and keep track of progress and areas of agreement. The negotiators might even try dining together as a group, instead of one side going out to a restaurant and the other ordering Chinese takeout.

The goal is to have a budget compromise ready and agreed-upon by the Tuesday before adjournment, something that’s always in the rules but which hasn’t happened in at least 12 years. That would give other legislators at least a day or two to read it over before voting on it. They want to vote on the budget no later than adjournment day, March 10.

Talking throughout the process, instead of just in the last week, should allow them to meet those deadlines, the legislators said.

“We have never had this type of dialogue,” said House Majority Leader Del. Kirk Cox, a budget negotiator.