By Burl Rolett
State Sen. Creigh Deeds condemned partisan politics in the evenly divided Virginia Senate in a speech to local Democrats Wednesday night.
Deeds spoke to the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee two days after the Virginia Senate passed its version of a budget bill that had been delayed by a dispute that began on the first day of the legislative session.
Deeds said that’s when Republicans used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote to restructure committees in the Senate. The move, he said, was an attempt to limit the power of Virginia’s 20 Democratic state senators. There are also 20 Republican senators, so Bolling’s vote allowed the Republicans to prevail.
“When we were 20-20, there had to be some accommodation,” Deeds said. “We thought that 50 percent needed to be recognized in the structure of the Senate.”
The Virginia Constitution gives the lieutenant governor the power to break ties in the state Senate. Bolling cast a record 28 tie-breaking votes this session, including the deciding vote on a controversial bill that will strengthen Virginia’s voter identification laws.
But Virginia law requires 21 “yes” votes in the Senate to pass a budget bill. The budget bill fell one vote short of passing in the Senate on two occasions during the regular session. Both votes tracked party lines. The General Assembly adjourned March 10 without passing a budget.
Lawmakers returned to Richmond for a special session March 21. The budget bill passed the Senate 34-4 within a week of the start of the special session.
Deeds said the process went smoothly in the special session because the finance committee produced a budget that complied with a list of requests Democrats submitted, including extra funding for K-12 education.
“That was the biggest accomplishment,” Deeds said. “We were able to pump about $1 million extra money into K-through-12 education.”
Deeds said the failure to address transportation funding was the biggest shortcoming of this legislative session.
The General Assembly passed a transportation bill in the final hours of the session, but major proposals for diverting more sales tax revenue to transportation funding and raising Virginia’s gas tax were not included.
The bill did include a proposal from Gov. Bob McDonnell to sell naming rights to highways, bridges and other transportation structures. Deeds opposed the proposal, saying it cheapened the practice of naming structures after worthy Virginians.
“We named bridges for medal of honor winners, for state troopers or local police officers who have been killed in the line of duty,” he said. “To say Interstate 29 is going to be the 29th Division Highway sponsored by Exxon-Mobil … it’s not Virginian; it demeans the process.”
Deeds spoke to members of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee at their regular meeting. About 65 people attended, and Chairman Joe Skovira said Wednesday’s meeting drew twice as many people as most meetings.
Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates are now working in conference to reconcile differences in their versions of the budget bill. Deeds said he expects a bill to pass early next week.
“Everybody’s under pressure to get something done,” he said.