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Warner Pushes Compromise

During local stop, governor urges Assembly members to pass a state budget.

With an Alexandria firehouse for his backdrop, surrounded by elected officials from around Northern Virginia, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner (D) Monday urged the General Assembly to pass a budget.

In his remarks at a rally at Fire Station 204, Warner criticized state lawmakers who proposed solving the state’s budget crisis by putting tax increases in a referendum for the November ballot.

"The notion that somehow we are going to turn Virginia into California because the legislature doesn’t want to make the hard choices, I categorically and completely reject,” Warner said.

Warner called the General Assembly into special session last week after the House adjourned without passing the required biennium budget. The two Houses could not come to agreement on any of the three budget proposals that are on the table.

The governor’s proposal would increase revenues by $1 billion; the Senate’s by about $2 billion and the House’s by about $600 million. The governor’s and the Senate’s proposals include significant tax reform with an increase in the sales tax and restructuring of the State’s income tax. The House is refusing to consider any increase in sales tax or restructuring of the income tax brackets. A meeting over the weekend failed to accomplish much.

<b>IF THAT IMPASSE</b> continues, said Arlington County Board chair Barbara Favola, that kind of inaction could plague the whole state. “We don’t want the gridlock in Richmond to be transported to Northern Virginia. We have enough gridlock of our own,” she said. “Localities want a full partner. We’re willing to fund services at the local level in a quality way.”

At the March 13 County Board meeting, Board Vice Chair Jay Fisette leveled his own criticism at delegates calling for a referendum on tax increases, as Board members voted to approve a resolution urging the Assembly to pass tax reform and a balanced budget.

“Any legislator that can’t do the public’s business and adopt a budget in a timely fashion should resign,” said Fisette

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille echoed that criticism Monday. “We ask that the General Assembly do the job that they were elected to do and not abdicate their responsibilities and that they not go to referendum. We cannot tolerate that,” Euille said.

It’s not a question of partisanship, said Warner. “Many of the local officials that have come together with us are Republicans. They all say in one voice, to the members of the House Republican caucus, 'Do your job. Compromise with the Senate and pass a budget that will give us the longterm fiscal stability that we need'…The people deserve it and in the coming days, I hope that we will see that spirit of compromise.”

<b>FAVOLA CALLED FOR</b> state support for human services and education around the region.

"We want a partner who’s willing to step up to the plate and recognize how important these services are and to fund these services at the level they deserve to be funded,” she said. “The State, in many cases, has mandated services, recognizing that there is a need and has not fully funded them. This is not the way to run a government.”

All of the local officials echoed Favola’s words, urging the General Assembly to pass a budget. Fairfax County has more than 166,000 students in its public schools. The Board of Supervisors is looking at the proposed operating budget for that school system and is going to have to make preliminary decisions without knowing what the State’s contribution will be.

“In Fairfax, we rely too much now on homeowners to fund our schools,” said Cathy Smith, the chair of the Fairfax County School Board. “If Fairfax County homeowners are called upon to fill the $600 million hole in the combined school and county budgets, their real estate taxes would have to go up by 40 percent in just one year. This hardly qualifies as no new taxes; it just qualifies as passing the buck.

Passing the buck could also mean putting the state in jeopardy, Euille. “We are concerned that without a budget and without tax restructuring, we are going to jeopardize our Triple A bond rating and that we cannot withstand.

Warner offered his budget proposal as the compromise. “If the House is at $600 million and the Senate is at $1.7 billion, it seems clear that my proposal at $1 billion is about in the middle,” he said. “If it would help, we can take my proposal and put some other people’s names on it. We just need a budget.”

<b>HOUSE MEMBERS</b> are not optimistic about such a compromise. “In the past two cycles, we have elected 38 new members,” said Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-45.) “Many of them ran on a no tax increase platform and they are controlling the more seniors of their own Caucus. They don’t have a clear idea of what it takes to run a government so I’m not sure that we can hope for a compromise any time soon.”

Conferees will meet this week and the entire General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene on Saturday to vote on any new proposals on which conferees have agreed.

“I have seen some movement on the part of the Senate,” Warner said. “Now, the House needs to compromise as well.”

<b>IN LOUDOUN COUNTY,</b> growth continues at such a pace that the school system has 28 new schools in the last eight years and 25 more are planned to meet the needs of a growing student population in the next six years.

Scott York, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said his Board is trying to decide what to do if there are no State fund transfers in July.

“If we do not have that money, we may need to raise taxes an additional 20 cents to make up for the difference or find significant cuts that may include not being able to open up four schools next year. As a citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I am embarrassed by what’s happening in Richmond. As a business partner, I am embarrassed by what is happening in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As a Republican … I call upon the Republicans to get together with the Democrats and the Independents and put a budget together as soon as possible so that we at the local level can do our jobs,” York said.