The Virginia Capitol. Democratic and Republican budget negotiators are still wrangling over Virginia's budget. (Graham Moomaw/ Virginia Mercury)
As Democrats and Republicans continue to point fingers over who’s to blame for Virginia’s delayed budget, the two lawmakers leading the negotiations said Monday they have no plans to hold any public meetings that might offer more insight into how those talks are going.
In brief interviews with the Mercury after an unrelated legislative meeting, House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, and Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, both said they’re still making progress.
Knight said he and Howell met a few times last week and are now waiting on budget staffers to finish some assignments to “get us real close.”
“We’re working as hard as we can,” Knight said.
But he said there have been no discussions of calling a full meeting of all 14 lawmakers assigned to work on the budget, a step that would trigger open-meeting requirements and allow reporters and the public to see what each side is offering and what’s causing the holdup.
“That’s what has always worked here at the legislative branch,” Knight said of the backchannel negotiations through which budget deals are usually worked out.
“Traditionally, the budget conferences are kept private,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to make any progress.”
State law says meetings of legislative conference committees, the small panels of lawmakers picked to work out lingering disagreements on bills expected to pass, are subject to open-meeting rules as long as enough members attend to make a quorum.
But that’s not how it works in practice. Most late-breaking compromises on legislation are made through informal conversations, either in the halls of the Capitol or via emails and text messages.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the term “conference committee” can often be misleading, since many of them don’t ever involve actual meetings. The budget conference is different, she said, because it usually involves at least some lawmakers meeting as a group with no public notice of where the meeting is taking place and what’s being discussed.
“For years reporters and citizens have complained about the lack of notice and the inability of the public and press to sit in on these meetings,” Rhyne said in an email.
The main sticking point in the current budget negotiations has been over the scope of the billions in tax cuts proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The Republican-led House of Delegates largely supports them. Senate Democrats have rejected several key tax proposals, including Youngkin’s push for a gas tax holiday and call to lower income taxes for some filers by doubling the state’s standard deduction.
Though the actual negotiations are happening in private, both sides have engaged in a prolonged public messaging war about whose position is more reasonable and who’s causing the holdup.
In a tweet Sunday, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, blamed Youngkin for the budget delay that’s complicating local governments’ efforts to approve their own budgets.
“I’m optimistic we will have a deal soon that will let our local governments plan,” wrote Lucas, whose newly invigorated Twitter presence has gotten her to more than 63,000 followers on the platform.
Her tweet drew a response from Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.
“Are you serious? We’re waiting on the Senate to come back to the table. The governor can’t do anything until the legislature passes a budget,” Shipley wrote.
The General Assembly’s regular session adjourned in mid-March, with the budget and dozens of other bills still unfinished. There was still no budget deal to vote on when lawmakers returned on April 4 to go into special session. And there was no budget last week when the legislature returned for a day to take up Youngkin’s vetoes and amendments to regular bills.
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The state’s current budget year is set to end June 30, meaning lawmakers still have several weeks to act to avoid a potential government shutdown.
In 2014, the first year of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s term, the budget wasn’t approved until June 23. That year, McAuliffe was sparring with Republicans who opposed his push to expand Medicaid.
A legislative rule prevents budgets from being voted on until at least 48 hours after they’ve been presented, a provision meant to allow at least a brief period of public review. But lawmakers are typically uneager to make major changes to the deals carefully designed in private.
Even though all 14 budget conferees haven’t met in person this year, Knight said, “they’re all in the loop.”
“From time to time different ones stop by and we get different ones’ expertise on things,” Knight said. “But we always keep in contact with them via the telephone or the internet.”
Howell suggested that even if reporters could observe the budget negotiations, they’d probably be bored.
“We’re into individual, very specific programs and sums of money,” she said. “So unless you’ve been really involved with it it’s hard to follow.”
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