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Small group begins push to finish Va. budget

Tuesday - 3/27/2012, 7:28pm  ET

AP Political Writer

RICHMOND, Va. - The final shape of Virginia's budget is now officially in the hands of senior legislators.

A dozen budget conferees _ six senators and six House members _ will huddle privately for the next few days in legislative office suites on Capitol Square reconciling House and Senate versions of the budget.

"Now it's down to some manageable items," said House Republican Leader Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, a House conferee, adding that both sides still had disagreements.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico, said he believed a deal could be reached and the budget could be ready for a final vote by Monday. House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, was more cautious, saying he believed negotiators would reach an accord and the budget adopted "within the next few weeks."

Unlike the regular 60-day session, there are no procedural deadlines that legislators must meet. The House and Senate adjourned Tuesday indefinitely until a deal is done and they are summoned back. The last time a state budget was resolved in a special session was 2006, when talks dragged into June and a new budget was signed into law just two days before the old one expired.

This year's budget is delayed because two versions of it died in the partisan crossfire of a balkanized Senate where 20 Republicans took organizational power over 20 Democrats solely based on Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's bitterly disputed tie-breaking vote.

With the Senate finally passing a budget on Monday, the widest differences center on public schools, health care funding and transportation. But the overall bottom line for the House and Senate versions of the $85 billion, two-year state government spending plan is the same.

The Senate removed $10.4 million that the House added for community-based care of intellectually and developmentally disabled people in settings near their homes, and House negotiators are determined to get it back, Cox said.

The Senate budget redirects about $66 million from Virginia's share of the national lawsuit settlement against major mortgage lenders for foreclosure abuses. It designates about $56 million for pre-kindergarten programs and the rest to a housing trust fund that aids people who suffered wrongful foreclosures.

The Senate budget adds $300 million to extend the Washington-area Metrorail to Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County, and to abate tunnel tolls in Hampton Roads. The House allowed for neither. The Senate version also adds $6 million to restore eligibility for about 1,500 of the 4,500 people whose long-term care eligibility would have been cut under budgets favored by Gov. Bob McDonnell and the House. There's an additional $6.7 million in the Senate budget than in the House plan to increase Medicaid personal care rates by 3 percent.

The Senate provides $455,000 more for teen pregnancy crisis centers than the House does, and it restores about $2.4 million over the biennium for at-risk childcare services.

The Senate proposes about $42 million to help northern Virginia school districts provide competitive salaries for non-teaching support staff who could be lured to bigger paychecks in other states. That's about 74 percent more than the House's $24 million proposal.

The Senate budget proposes about $700 million more in transportation bonding authority over the two-year period than does the House proposal.

One obstacle that won't vex the conferees is the divisive and emotional issue of state funding for pre-abortion ultrasound exams. They will be required under recently passed legislation that becomes law July 1. The Senate on Monday defeated an amendment that Democrats sought that would have obligated insurers to cover the procedure and for the state to pay the costs for uninsured women.

"The controversy was (the question) `Does it cost anything at all?' Most people concluded it should not, therefore it did not require any revision in our budget," said Stosch, who heads the Senate negotiating team of four Republicans and two Democrats. "It became more of a political issue than a financial issue."

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