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Senate committee approves state budget plan with Democratic amendments

In a step forward in Virginia’s budget impasse, the state Senate Finance committee today approved a group of budget amendments proposed by Democrats, and unanimously voted to send the budget bill to the full Senate next week.

Senate Democrats — who have 20 of the body’s 40 votes — had previously voted down two budget bills, out of concerns about specific spending items and also anger at disproportional party representation on committees.

That created a budget impasse, with the legislature adjourning its regular session nearly two weeks ago without passing a new two-year, $85 billion spending bill.

Since then, Democrats put a list of budget demands into amendment form, and negotiated with Senate Republican budget-writers to agree on a group of amendments that both sides could support, for the most part.

Today the committee voted to attach those amendments to a House budget bill passed during the regular session, and forward that bill to the full Senate.

The struggle over committee assignments appears to be off the table, at least for now.

The Democrats’ spending amendments as approved today do not contain new money, said committee chairman Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico. Instead, they required budget staff to shift money around, cutting from one place to spend more elsewhere.

“You’ll find we’re basically repackaging what was available,” Stosch said.

Among the new provisions are elimination of a $20 million deposit into Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “FACT” fund, set up to help prepare the state for potential federal budget cuts, and shifting the way in which the Senate proposes to help localities pay for an increase in state retirement payments.

The total is about $56 million; most of it was in the Senate’s previous budget proposals, but now it would flow to localities’ school divisions instead of being sent more generally to local governments.

The new amendments restore cost-of-competing funds for Northern Virginia schools, money for teen pregnancy prevention and poison control centers, and restore some proposed cuts to employment support services for the disabled and nursing home Medicaid eligibility rates.

They also shift money expected to come through a mortgage settlement.

The new amendments also postpone a planned increase in road tolls in Hampton Roads.

That amendment proved the most controversial, with one Republican arguing that legislators ought not to be overruling transportation decisions made by transportation officials.

“We might as well abolish the Commonwealth Transportation Board,” said Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City.

But other Republicans said they’d vote for the amendment, simply to highlight a desperate need for new transportation money.

“We are inadequately funding the revenue streams,” said Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan. “This is the beginning of a unique set of problems that are just going to get worse…We cannot keep doing this. I want it handed right back to the executive branch for them to have to deal with it. We need some leadership up here.”

In the end that amendment was approved, as were the rest.

All the Democrats on the committee voted for the bill, a change from the last two times the committee had a budget bill before it.

“I think we’ve made it better,” said Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, thanking Republican committee members for their help in changing the budget bill.

Democrats also expect to support it on the floor.

Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico, said Democrats will propose one additional amendment — a provision to provide state funding for ultrasounds that are required for abortions. While Democrats had previously pushed for the state to fund, or require insurance companies to cover, all such ultrasounds (required under a bill passed this session), the amendment is likely to only cover indigent patients.

“I would expect once the ultrasound amendment is adopted … you’d see a significant vote for the budget” from Democrats, McEachin told reporters.

That vote could come on Monday. Stosch said senators who are not on the finance committee will get a briefing on the budget changes before then.

Once the full Senate approves the bill, negotiations with the House can begin in earnest. Not all of the provisions Democrats pushed for are likely to make it to a final compromise.

“You should not assume all of these will survive” the process, Stosch said.