RICHMOND, Virginia – Lawmakers in the Senate and House of Delegates advanced their biennial budget to a formal conference committee on Wednesday and assigned conferees to represent the bodies, but much of the work on compromising has already been conducted.
Before the two legislative bodies agreed to send the budget to a joint conference committee, however, the Senate first had to adopt a batch of seven committee amendments to the budget legislation.
Just as he did last week during session, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City County) asked Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County) and Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax County) about the status of the redistricting commission language.
“The status is that, although it is not currently in the budget, the plan is that [agreed upon language] will be sent down by the governor should the constitutional amendment pass,” Howell responded.
Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) assured Norment that Governor Ralph Northam had committed to offering an amendment on the redistricting commission with compromised language were voters to approve the proposed constitutional change.
The Senate then adopted the amendments by a voice vote.
As part of the procedural path to a conference committee, the House rejected those Senate budget amendments. A move that Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax County), vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Virginia Star would be the House’s plan.
Next, the Senate insisted on its amendments and requested a conference committee by a vote of (Y-38 N-1). The House acceded to that request, forming the joint committee.
The conferees appointed for the Senate are Howell, Barker and Hanger.
The House conferees are Sickles, Luke Torian (D-Prince William County) Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, David Bulova (D-Fairfax County), Betsy Carr (D-Richmond City), Roslyn Tyler (D-Southampton County) and Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach).
Despite the formation of a conference committee on Wednesday, many of those same legislators have already been in talks working in the background to create a compromised budget for the Senate and House.
“We’ve had an informal conference where we have been trying to work out our differences and we’ve made some good progress doing that,” Hanger said in an interview with The Star. “We’ve spent more time at it than I’d hoped to over the last week and a half, basically working with staff to outline the differences and what it would take to get us back together.”
Sickles, who was also part of the talks offered a similar, positive view of the discussions.
“We’re close and I think we will probably have the whole [budget] voted on by Friday, maybe Saturday,” Sickles said. “The budget was fairly straight forward so we’ve got a pretty good handle on how it is going to work out.”
One of the few Republican lawmakers included in the process, Hanger said that there were lots of similarities in the priorities, but also a few differences.
Some of those differences included the amount of money allocated to state colleges and universities, how juvenile justice reform was going to be funded and varying levels of support for broadband deployment, according to Hanger.
Sickles mentioned differences relating to contingent spending and the structure of the two budgets.
The biggest point of contention between the small group of Delegates and Senators came on the redistricting commission. Nevertheless, the two sides were eventually able to agree upon a compromised version of the language that did include some changes, Hanger said.
One change was taking out the criteria sections for how the districts would be drawn by the potential commission and the other was prohibiting the majority and minority party leaders of the bodies from appointing themselves as legislative commissioners, according to Hanger.
Now, the formal conference committee can meet and solve any remaining issues before presenting a fully compromised budget to the governor.
All signs point to a final passage of the budget happening on Friday. The Senate will convene at 4 p.m. and the House will convene at 5:40 p.m. Friday afternoon.
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