Priorities Define Budget Talks
RICHMOND, VA - After five days of budget talks, it is clear that this year's budget negotiations revolve around five major differences. House negotiators, dominated by Republicans, have identified two major priorities, while Senate negotiators, dominated by Democrats, have identified three major priorities.
The primary priorities of House negotiators are 1) to increase the number of service waivers for the mentally retarded by an additional 650 waivers above the 150 waivers recommended by Governor Kaine, and 2) to provide a first year pay raise for teachers paid from a rebenchmarking methodology change and a first year pay raise for state employees and college faculty paid for from the overpayments to the state's employee health insurance fund.
Senate negotiators have identified three major priorities. These are 1) expand non-mandated preschool programs, 2) provide jail diversion and prison reentry programs for convicted criminals, and 3) continue to fund Drug Courts.
Prior to the first meeting Senate negotiators set the tone when Senate majority leader, Richard Saslaw declared he was prepared "to stay until December" and Senator Janet Howell stated that she "would never agree" to the methodology change being proposed by the House budget.
Although no such statements or "lines in the sand" have been offered by House negotiators, they have made it very clear that first year pay raises for teachers, state employees, etc... and additional assistance for the mentally retarded were higher priorities than expanded programs for four-year olds, criminals, and citizens with drug problems.
Hopeful that a budget resolution will be reached by Saturday, Delegate Phillip Hamilton (R-Newport News) said, "The state budget defines the General Assembly's priorities. While there are many issues that must be addressed, the expressed priorities and attitudes of delay and intransigence of some Senate negotiators cause me to question the seriousness by which they are working to resolve honest, philosophical differences on funding the core service functions of state government."