By Ryan Murphy
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A legislative conference committee soon will begin deliberations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the state budget, which would take effect July 1.
“We are cautiously optimistic that a solid, fiscally prudent budget will emerge from conference and be voted into law within the next few weeks,” House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said Tuesday.
A number of sticking points could delay any agreement. They include road tolls in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, different provisions on Medicaid eligibility and the shuffling of money between education and transportation. The Republican-heavy conference committee could mean that a budget looking more like the House version will come out of the deliberations.
“With various localities and agencies waiting for final adoption of the budget, I hope that the conferees will produce a balanced conference report for final passage in short order,” Howell said.
Senate Democrats were able to use the evenly divided chamber to their advantage for the first time.
As lieutenant governor, Republican Bill Bolling has been able to cast tie-breaking votes on legislation, essentially giving Republicans an unofficial majority in the chamber. However, he cannot cast the deciding vote on matters pertaining to the budget.
Democrats pushed the advantage to force a budget more to their liking. It kept more money in education and pushed back tolls in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, according to Delegate Mark Sickles, D-Franconia.
“What the Senate has done is exactly what House Democrats were fighting for during each round of the budget process,” Sickles said.
A sizable Republican majority in the House blocked passage of the Senate version of the budget, setting the stage for joint budget conference meetings. A panel of senators and delegates will compare the two budgets, see where they don’t match up and try to hammer out a compromise. The result would go to both the House and Senate for final approval.
The budget conference committee consists of six representatives from each chamber. The panel has eight Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights; three Democrats; and one independent, Delegate Lacey Putney of Bedford. Putney chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.