Conference committee now merging Senate and House versions of budget

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By Delegate Kathy Byron

We are one week away from our final newsletter which will mark the end of the 2010 General Assembly session.  With the final week of the General Assembly session approaching, senators and delegates are moving quickly toward completing final work on legislation.

    For most legislation considered by the General Assembly, the path to passage or rejection is pretty standard.  A legislator submits a bill, and it goes though the normal gauntlet of subcommittees and committees, receiving input from other members, sometimes being amended, and occasionally having its finer points negotiated.  If the bill survives all its hurdles, it is sent to the Governor for his approval.  If one of our House bills gets amended by the Senate and we don’t agree with those changes, we can insist on a conference to work out language that both Houses will accept to pass the bill. 

    This coming week, conference committees consisting of both House and Senate members will meet to iron out the differences on all bills in conference.  By far, the busiest committee is the budget conference committee.  Budget negotiations between the House and the Senate are now underway.  Once again, the lead negotiator for the House is Delegate Lacey Putney, from Bedford County, so our region is well represented on the conference committee that will hammer out an agreement.

    That conference committee has six delegates and six senators working to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget bill.   But most conference committees are half that size, with three senators and three delegates appointed to resolve differences on legislation. 

    A quick comparison of the two budgets show one of the main areas of disagreement between the House and Senate versions of the spending plan are fees.  The budget introduced by Governor Kaine included hundreds of millions of dollars of new and increased fees.  The Senate included some of his fee increases, rejected others, and then included some of their own.  In contrast, the House budget rejected Governor Kaine’s new fees, just as it rejected his plan to hike the state income tax by 17%.

    Governor Kaine’s fees did not meet with complete acceptance in the Senate.  For example, Senator Steve Newman and Senator Hurt voted “no” on the Senate Budget plan, two of ten senators to do so.

    In order to leave Richmond as scheduled on March 13, the House and Senate have to reach agreement on a budget.  The work of reaching an agreement will continue in the week ahead.

    I have three bills left to work through senate committees on Monday which is our deadline for all committee work.  Two of the bills are workforce training measures and the other is the infant bill mentioned in previous newsletters.  It is not always an easy task to get bills passed on the last day for committee work.  Many times good policy fails because it gets tangled with other controversial issues that bring on rushed activity and lack of attention from weary legislators.

    This past week my HB 1349 which was approved by the House Finance Committee unanimously and won wide bipartisan approval from the House Floor on a vote of 86 to 10, was heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.  The Committee defeated the measure by a vote of 7 to 8.  Ordinarily, that would be the end of the story.  The next day though, things changed.

    In a rare move, the Senate Finance Committee, a body not generally known for changing its minds, moved to take the bill up a second time.  And this time, it passed on a vote of 10 to 4.  Four senators changed their minds.

    This bill will require the Department of Taxation to create a link, similar to the one on the federal IRS site, Free File, to private companies that offer free tax filing for individuals earning less than $57,000 and a minimal fee for higher incomes.  For those that are already using the free file system from the IRS, this will enable a direct link when your federal tax return is completed to allow you to process your state return quickly and efficiently.   The only opposition to this bill was some of the Commissioner of Revenue offices.  Unbeknownst to many of us, the Commissioners have been offering their services to complete free tax returns for Virginians.  While, we are all grateful when government will work with taxpayers in a friendly manner, most agreed not only is it a conflict to have the tax collector serving as an H & R Block office, they also did not want to be paying their tax dollars to have government provide this service.  I suggested to those Senators who felt we should continue to provide this free service that it is not a core service of Government and the money could be better used for mental health, public safety, or education. 

    Hard to believe, but there’s just one week left before the scheduled conclusion of this year’s session.  In next week’s edition, I’ll give you a wrap up of the year and, hopefully, update you on the details of the state’s new two-year spending plan.  Until then, enjoy the (finally) warming temperatures and (hopefully) snow-free skies.