House and Senate Still Reconciling Budgets
House and Senate budget conferees are still trying to reconcile the differences between their two budget proposals.
Not surprisingly, two different tales were told yesterday on the House and Senate floors…about the lack of a breakthrough in budget negotiations. House conferees remained adamant that fees and furloughs should be significantly reduced…and Senate conferees said that state programs could sustain no more cuts than they had already proposed.
The Senate budget proposal has 326 million dollars in new fees included to help meet the state’s 4 billion dollar budget shortfall. The original House proposal had none. Over the weekend House conferees offered to accept 76 million of those fees, with the hope the Senate would make a counter offer.
Delegate Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights is the senior Republican among the House Conferees.
Kirk Cox: The Senate has over 600 million dollars in their budget both of fees and of basically revenue assumptions and also things like Sunday opening of ABC stores and more ABC stores that get them a lot more revenue than we do. It’s a lot easier to fund things like K-12 and health care and sheriffs if you have a frankly a structurally an unbalanced budget that has about 600 million dollars worth of revenue that I think largely you can’t account for. The Senate did not offer to eliminate any of their fees but said they would remove one of their three proposed furlough days.
Cox talked about the difficulties of implementing furloughs.
Kirk Cox: Any agency that goes 24-7 has to pay overtime to basically make up for those furloughs, especially mental health agencies that have training centers. As a matter of fact we calculated that they have to pay 340,000 dollars a day in overtime wages to make up for the furlough. How do you furlough professors that are teaching? How do you furlough food service workers? Do you not eat one day? And if you think about it with college tuition going up, I’m not real happy if I’m a parent not getting fed and my college professor isn’t showing up one day.
Democratic Senator Janet Howell of Fairfax said it was critical for the House to accept more of the Senate proposed fees to protect public safety.
Janet Howell: A key component of the proposed Senate budget plan is to raise about 166 million dollars over two years in new fee revenue. That includes 100 million dollars from Senate Bill 329, Senator Stuart’s bill, which raises civil filing fees in district and circuit courts. The House has refused to consider accepting these fee increases and they have not put forward any alternatives to restoring the resulting budget reductions. As a result the House actually funds more than 1,000 fewer law enforcement officers than the Senate.
Delegate Cox strongly disagreed with the Stuart amendment.
Kirk Cox: It would basically change general district court from 27 dollars to 75 dollars to file. In other words you’re going to pay something around 120 dollars to go to court. So if you’re a small business, a florist, and you’re trying to collect a bill for 40 or 50 dollars, why would you ever go into court again? Those fees are outrageous. If you look at the fees they are charging for circuit court, they double and triple.
Democratic Senator Edd Houck of Spotsylvania said house cuts were particularly hard on public education.
Edd Houck: The House budget cuts an additional 560 some million dollars more out of our public schools. Before we ever start, before we have any consideration of the Senate amending House Bill 30, there was over one billion dollars worth of cuts to k-12. If you want to do some real damage to public schools in Virginia, that budget down the hall does it. And they’re trying to force your conferees to accept it. They’re trying to pit public safety against public education. Now the Senate budget as it left here amended, we were able to take care of all of those and yes, there were fee increases in there to do that. We did not do it at the expense of public education. Your senate conferees are determined not, not to resolve public safety on the backs of our schoolchildren in Virginia. We’re going to stand strong and we’re going to fight hard for it.
Delegate Cox also remained firm on the House position.
Kirk Cox: We feel like we made a very, very good offer. We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves. The ball is now in the Senate court. I hope they’ll respond with something serious this afternoon.
The conferee’s met again for about 2 hours late yesterday afternoon and adjourned without a cohesive proposal. Talks are set to resume this morning.
Craig Carper, WCVE News, Capitol Square.