By Alex Morton – Capital News Service
RICHMOND – On the fourth try, the Senate joined the House on Wednesday in approving an $85 billion state budget for the next two years.
One Democrat, Sen. Charles Colgan of Manassas, joined all 20 Senate Republicans in voting for the budget bill, HB 1301. The House had approved the measure, 77-19, on Tuesday.
A day earlier, Colgan and all other Democrats present voted against HB 1301, complaining that it lacked funding for the second phase of the Dulles Rail extension to Loudoun County. That prevented the budget from getting the 21 Senate votes it needed to pass.
Republicans applauded Colgan for his change of heart, and they criticized Democrats for their budget tactics.
“After two months of obstructionism punctuated by one last-ditch attempt by the leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus to derail the budget process, the General Assembly has fulfilled its constitutional duty to pass a budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment of Williamsburg.
Norment said the budget wouldn’t have passed “without the statesmanship of Sen. Chuck Colgan. He demonstrated again today why he is one of Virginia’s most respected leaders.”
Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said Wednesday “was a good day for the Senate and a great day for Virginians.”
“The budget we approved provides much needed funding increases for K-12 public education and for our state-supported colleges and universities,” Stosch said. “It also provides critical funding for transportation needs across the state, our local governments, health-care services, our state parks and all operations of state government.”
Democrats said that by blocking the budget, the party forced Republicans to restore cuts in government services.
“The governor proposed taking $100 million from public education and public safety to finance transportation, slashed the health-care safety net and cut millions from the cost of competing funding for hard-to-staff positions in public school,” said Delegate Mark Sickles of Franconia, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.
“While this is not the budget that we would have crafted, it is a vast improvement over the original proposal.”
The budget will take effect July 1. Republican officials warned that by holding up the budget process, Democrats were risking a state government shutdown and preventing local governments from preparing their own spending plans.
“We said on several occasions that this budget would come in due course,” said the Democratic leader in the House, Delegate David Toscano of Charlottesville. “With a budget in place, our schools and local governments will be able to adopt their own budgets well in advance of the close of the fiscal year.”
Sickles said Democrats “remain hopeful that we can find a solution to the funding dilemma on the Dulles Toll Road and provide toll relief to the families who will face high skyrocketing tolls without additional assistance from the commonwealth.”
On Tuesday, citing a recent study, Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax said the Dulles Metrorail project was vital to his region.
“In the ‘Top Five Public Works in America,’ the No. 1 project was the Metrorail to Dulles. It has already caused major things to happen such as job creation, which totals about 300,000 jobs in the Arlington and Clarendon area,” Saslaw said.
Without funding for the Metrorail extension, Saslaw said, Loudoun County residents eventually would be paying almost $12 each way to commute to work in the Washington, D.C., area.
Because of the dispute, the General Assembly failed to pass a budget during its regular legislative session, which ended March 10. Since then, a conference committee of House members and senators has been trying to hammer out a compromise.