The Virginia Senate's version of the state budget died Thursday when Democrats, rebuffed in their bid for a share of power in the evenly divided chamber, voted against the two-year, $85 billion spending plan.
The party-line vote on the budget was 20-17, with three Democrats not voting. Twenty-one votes were required for passage.
Seeds for the partisan deadlock were planted when the session opened in January with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling casting the tie-breaking vote to organize the Senate under GOP control. The bitterly contested vote gave Republicans majority membership and chairmanships of committees, which determine which bills reach the Senate floor.
Democrats, using the budget as leverage, last week asked for more seats on committees and co-chairmanship of the powerful Finance Committee. GOP leaders refused, and they were steamed when Democrats derailed the spending bill.
“We've had budget stalemates before but none like this, saturated with power politics,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. of James City County fumed after the vote.
Norment said at a news conference that during a lengthy discussion of the budget on the Senate floor, no Democrat asked for an explanation of any spending item or offered any floor amendment, “and yet they had the audacity to turn around and vote against it.”
He attributed the Democrats' opposition to “political bruised egos going back to day one” of the session, when they were first denied a power-sharing arrangement.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin of Henrico County, chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus, said his party is not motivated by egos but by a desire to blunt what it considers a far-right agenda driven by a GOP that claimed power it did not earn at the ballot box in November.
“They have tried to grant power they don't have,” McEachin said.
The result, he said, has been a flurry of legislation to curb abortion rights, suppress minority voting and roll back gun protections.
“People are upset,” he said, noting the hundreds of women who have flocked to the Capitol to protest legislation requiring women seeking an abortion to have an invasive ultrasound and a bill, which was shelved for the year earlier Thursday, laying the foundation for an abortion ban by defining human life as beginning at conception.
“Now they've made a mess,” McEachin said of the Republicans. “They shouldn't be running the government without us.”
Republicans insisted, however, that holding up the state budget is an inappropriate way for Democrats to pursue their goals.
“Passing a balanced budget, on time, is the most important duty of all of us sent to Richmond,” Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said in a written statement. “...Now, for apparently partisan reasons, Senate Democrats may have put a timely budget at risk.”
Democrats “now stand as obstructionists,” and he suggested they should accept their role as the minority party, Bolling said.
“They were elected to help address the important issues facing Virginia, and it's time for them to do that,” Bolling said.
Failure to pass a Senate budget does not necessarily mean no spending plan at all. The House of Delegates voted 79-21 to pass its version of the budget, which the Senate will vote on next week. However, the House plan includes a diversion of sales tax revenue for transportation -- it otherwise would go the schools, public safety and health care -- that Democrats strongly oppose.
“That will be less attractive than the Senate bill,” McEachin said. “But we'll just have to wait and see.”
The House adopted a handful of amendments to its budget, including one that would restore about $650,000 for “Alicia's Law,” a law enforcement program that targets internet child sex predators. The money comes from a $10 fee collected on criminal convictions.
McDonnell's introduced budget appropriated $1.8 million for the program, even though it collected more than $2.4 million, and designated the excess for the state's general fund.
Alicia Kozakiewicz, a victim of an Internet predator who inspired passage of the law, pleaded at a news conference earlier Thursday for full funding for the program.
“If you steal this money, you are stealing hope from children who are living in hell -- a hell I know all too well,” she said. “If you take this money, you will be aiding and abetting the enemies of children.”
The House also approved amendments to restore funding for research projects at Old Dominion University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, and increased the amount originally earmarked for a “cost of competing” fund that bolsters pay for school employees in northern Virginia.