General Assembly Report column by Del. Ben Cline
Under Article 4 of the Constitution of Virginia, “no regular session of the General Assembly convened in an even-numbered year shall continue longer than sixty days.” That means that the 2008 session should have adjourned for the year on Saturday, March 8. However, as the hours passed last Saturday, and the House finished voting on a few remaining bills, it became clear that disagreements over one bill in particular would keep us from adjourning on time: the state budget.
The budget is considered just like any other bill – House and Senate versions are introduced, each bill is amended in a committee, and each bill is then passed by the full House or Senate. Then, as with any other bill, the differences between the House and Senate versions are resolved in a conference committee made up of about six delegates and six senators. After the issues are resolved and a final conference budget is produced, the Senate and House pass the conference version of the bill and send it on to the governor for his signature.
Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, when the bill involves over $75 billion in taxpayer money and runs over 200 pages long, it becomes anything but simple. Add the fact that the House and Senate are controlled by different political parties for the first time in a decade, and you have a recipe for gridlock. That’s why this year the General Assembly missed its deadline for adjournment and has been forced to extend the session for a few extra days.
Negotiations on the budget can resemble a wrestling match, with the House and Senate negotiating teams using the first few rounds to size up each other and make a few quick moves to find weaknesses and vulnerabilities. That is what happened this year, with each side issuing dueling press releases before finally sitting down in earnest to work through the tough areas of disagreement. Ultimately, though, the process differs from a wrestling match in one major way. Unlike a wrestling match, with the state budget there is no losing side. Instead, both parties play to a draw and then declare victory.
As this column goes to print, there are signs that an agreement is close. Major disagreements on funding for mental health and pre-K programs appear to be resolved, and both sides seem to have reached an agreement on funding for raises for teachers and for state employees. It also appears that both sides have agreed not to fund any pork-barrel “non-state agency” projects this year. This is a victory for the taxpayers in a year when revenues have fallen short of expectations, and money must be focused on core government services like education, transportation and health care.
I look forward to reporting next week on the details of any agreement on the budget that may be approved later this week, as well as provide a wrap-up of the session and the various legislative initiatives that were approved this year.
Now that the session is almost done, and I am home from Richmond, please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns at both my Amherst and Buena Vista offices. The phone number is 434.946-9908 and my email is [email protected].
I look forward to seeing you around the 24th District.
Ben Cline represents the 24th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.