Budgeting Blues

Budgeting Blues

Lawmakers grapple with passing a state budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

As a former teacher of government, Walt Mika of Fairfax has been disappointed with the General Assembly's inability to establish a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

"I just can't believe we elect people who don't understand that government is about compromise," said Mika. "I never saw them as close-minded as this. That's scary."

Mika was one of more than a dozen citizens who attended an April 1 Town Hall Meeting on the state budget impasse, facilitated by Del. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-37th) at Robinson Secondary in Fairfax. As senators and delegates returned to their districts last week, Petersen and other politicians hosted public discussions regarding the three rejected budget proposals, submitted by Gov. Mark Warner (D), the House of Delegates and the Senate.

"This is my third year in the legislature, and I've never seen that happen," said Petersen, relating how the General Assembly finished its regular session without a budget passed. It has been meeting in special session since March 17.

The resounding chorus among citizens to area politicians has been to pass a budget in Richmond as soon as possible.

"What I hear most are people saying, what are you guys doing down there? Figure something out," said Del. Stephen C. "Steve" Shannon (D-35th), who had about 75 citizens show up to his town hall meeting several days ago.

Lawmakers representing Fairfax City believed the inability to pass the budget has come from Republicans in the House of Delegates, many of whom have supported a "No Tax" pledge when they ran for office last November.

Each of the proposed budgets had suggested increases in sales taxes or cigarette taxes. A Senate bill by Sen. John H. Chichester (R-28th) and Warner's tax bill both supported the addition of two income tax brackets for incomes over $100,000.

"I think this has become personal," said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-34th) on the in-house arguments between House Republicans, the House and the Senate, and the General Assembly and the governor. Devolites had heard professional mediators discuss the defensiveness of members within the legislative body. "It has become so challenging because of the personal attacks. I think that that has got to end."

If a decision on the state budget cannot be reached soon, Shannon said Fairfax County Public Schools could be sending letters to teachers explaining that their contracts may not be renewed, since the county's budget depends on some revenue from the state.

AT PETERSEN'S Town Hall Meeting, citizens representing education, public safety and community services interests explained that not passing a state budget could mean an inability to hire new paramedics or shorten the wait list for a nursing education program.

"I'm concerned that the state government may shut down, and I don't want to see that happen," said Peggy Kugler of Fairfax, after Petersen's Town Hall Meeting.

Furthermore, a diminished reserve fund and threats to the state's triple-A bond rating have added pressure to lawmakers to seek a solution to budget woes.

"That has really put pressure on us to step up and find some new money," said Petersen after the meeting, referring to the reserve fund.

If a budget were passed, Devolites would like to see an increase in the cigarette tax to offset the rising costs of Medicaid. She added that she would be willing to discuss a half-cent increase in the sales tax, while a gasoline tax would be inappropriate presently because of recent prices at the pump. Furthermore, the state also needs to address transportation funding and a possible future shortfall of 10,000 prison beds.

Both she and Petersen didn't approve Chichester's budget proposal. Devolites argued that the proposal asked for too much to accomplish in a short amount of time, while Petersen disagreed with the two additional income tax brackets above $100,000.

"This plan in the Senate is really the ultimate," Devolites said. "I think there's a desire to leave some sort of legacy."

Since the special session started, two attempts to delay budget decisions have failed to earn the support of the majority of lawmakers. They dismissed a voter referendum to address an increase in the sales tax, and they disapproved of a continuing resolution to delay passage of a state budget.

WITH THE General Assembly reconvening on April 21, lawmakers hope a compromise may be near. The House Finance Committee and the whole House met Tuesday to discuss more budgeting proposals, while the Senate convenes on Wednesday.

Among the bills that the House Finance Committee will examine is legislation sponsored by Petersen. It calls for raising the cigarette tax 25 cents per pack, repealing some business exemptions, transferring a half-penny from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund, and replacing that half-penny from the trust fund with other sources, such as a titling tax, a gas tax or driver's license fees.

The legislation, meant to be a starting point for discussion, doesn't raise the sales or income tax, Petersen said.

"Let's just get people to sit down and figure out what taxes people can tolerate," Petersen said.

Mika hopes his lawmakers can find a solution soon.

"I just don't think enough people understand how dangerous the situation is," he said.