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Va. Senate abruptly passes $85 billion budget

RICHMOND, Va. — After voting against the $85 billion budget needed to fund Virginia government three times over the past two months, the state Senate abruptly took up and passed the spending plan Wednesday after a senior Democratic lawmaker broke ranks.

It was a surprising turnaround. The 21-19 vote in favor of a budget conference committee report came a day after it was all but killed in the partisan crossfire of a Senate where Democrats and Republicans hold 20 seats apiece. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is barred by the state Constitution from casting tie-breaking votes on appropriations bills.

Sen. Charles Colgan, a moderate Democrat from Prince William County, broke with his party and joined Republicans to give the budget the one-vote majority required for passage.

The 85-year-old Colgan, a former Senate Finance Committee chairman and long considered a swing vote, had been under heavy pressure from both sides for days.

Colgan changed his mind Wednesday and notified Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, R-James City County. Norment noticed that one member of his caucus, Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake, had left. Blevins was rushing home because of a family illness, and Senate Republicans were unable to reach him by cell phone so they asked the Virginia State Police to help locate Blevins on the highway and send him back to the Capitol. With Blevins back in the chamber, Colgan called the bill back for reconsideration and it passed.

Colgan left the Capitol shortly after the vote and went home, leaving blindsided fellow Democrats angry.

"I was stunned," Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, said afterward. "I knew he was tired and he wanted to go home, but this was without any warning."

"I didn't see it coming that way and neither did anybody else," said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax. Asked if he and Senate Democrats were unhappy with Colgan, Saslaw tersely replied, "That would probably be accurate."

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, by contrast, hailed "the courage and statesmanship" of Colgan in breaking a lingering stalemate that threatened to disrupt state government operations and construction projects and had left the budgets of cities and counties across the state in limbo.

Republicans, who had accused Democrats of "obstructive brinksmanship" a day earlier, were gleeful at their triumph.

"This wasn't something that just spontaneously happened this afternoon at a magic hour. It was really the culmination of a lot of diligence and a lot of collegial relationships," Norment said.

They had lobbied Colgan, the longest-serving state senator in Virginia, intensely. His change of heart came after a conversation with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Lacey Putney, an 83-year-old independent who has represented Bedford in the House for 50 years, making him the longest-serving legislator in Virginia history.

Democrats had balked Tuesday over the Republicans' refusal to grant an additional $300 million for a high-priority northern Virginia mass transit project, the extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport. Construction is being overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates not only Dulles and Reagan airports but also an expressway that links Dulles airport with the Capital Beltway.

Democrats said that the annual costs for commuters who use the Dulles Toll Road would rise from $2.25 one way to $6.75 each way within a few years, reaching an annual cost of as high as $3,500.

Sharp toll increases are an undue burden that could stifle the economy of northern Virginia, the state's most populous region, which provides 40 percent of Virginia's tax revenue, Democrats said. They called for taking the funding from other projects, particularly a bypass around Charlottesville and one converting U.S. 460 between Hampton Roads and the Richmond area into an interstate-like highway south of the James River.

Legislative Republicans also held firm against diverting money for transportation projects elsewhere in Virginia to the Dulles project or authorizing more borrowing for it.

"That would be like long-term borrowing for you to buy gas for your car," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico.

The budget bill remained alive because the special session to act on it was recessed — not adjourned — on Tuesday. As the political fallout settled in on Wednesday afternoon, the bill was called up for reconsideration in the Senate and, without debate, passed 10½ weeks before the current budget expires June 30.

The budget bill now goes to McDonnell for his amendments.



Conference report on Virginia budget: