There is a budget impasse in the Commonwealth of Virginia and it has nothing to do with budget issues such as state spending or tax policy. No, the Democrats are now obstructing a budget plan that was constructed through bipartisan collaboration and cooperation in an effort to reorganize some committees to give their party more power. Democrat Senators Richard L. Saslaw and A. Donald McEachin are asking for more seats on crucial committees. They have also requested that the powerful Senate Finance Committee be co-chaired by a Republican and Democrat.
The current stalemate is set up by an intricacy within the Virginia Constitution that requires the votes of 21 senators to pass a budget. The lieutenant governor cannot cast a tie-breaking vote. With 20 Republican senators and 20 Democrat senators, passage of the budget requires bipartisan cooperation — and the Senate had been working cooperatively. The Senate plan includes countless amendments that were introduced by Democrats and reflects the top priorities they have publicly expressed. Indeed, the spending plan constructed by the Senate Finance Committee can be fairly characterized as the most bipartisan budget proposal advanced in recent history.
Republican Senator Ryan McDougle explains some of the budget compromises;
Democrats objected to increasing the portion of the sales tax dedicated to transportation. They objected to what they saw as an inadequate level of funding for education. They were concerned about funding levels for Medicaid. All of these concerns were addressed in favor of Democrats, with the Senate incorporating their stands into the budget. No additional sales tax revenues are being redirected to transportation, public education is funded at higher levels than achieved in recent budgets passed during Democratic control of the Senate, and health care was funded at a level higher than either the governor’s or the House’s budget proposal.
McDougle also cautions that allowing budget negotiations to revolve around issues entirely unrelated to the budget could set a dangerous and lasting precedent, creating potential for the budget to be held hostage every year due to unrelated legislative disputes.
Some may ask, if the Senate is split 20-20, why not share power? Well, truth be known, despite the even split the voters of Virginia actually gave a mandate to Republicans in 2011. In early 2011 the Democrat controlled Senate crafted a hyper-partisan redistricting plan intended to ensure control by their party regardless of the expressed will of the voters. In spite of this effort the Republicans won control in the November 2011 election. Republican candidates for Senate out-polled their Democrat counterparts by 57 percent to 40 percent. But gerrymandered districts skewed that result, electing more Democrats than the popular vote reflected.
The balance of power in the Senate now rests with its presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican. Coincidently, Bolling won 57 percent of the vote in his most recent election in 2009. So while the new Republican majority may be numerically narrow, it reflects the clearly expressed preferences of the 57 percent of Virginians who voted Republican for Senate in 2011 and lieutenant governor in 2009.
Virginia Senate Democrats worked hard to win concessions in this budget and they now have a choice; stop obstructing and pass this budget or continue to make non-budgetary demands and shut down the commonwealth which will undoubtedly result in a negative backlash. Is there one courageous Democrat left in the Virginia Senate?
To his credit Governor Bob McDonnell has talked with many members of the Senate Democratic caucus, in an effort to break the standoff. McDonnell commented,
“There are many over there that truly are statesmen, really do want to see Virginia be put first, and I think that they don’t want to be in the embarrassing situation of having to look their constituents in the eye and [say], ‘I killed the Senate budget because I wanted to have more power and better committees,’” he said. “That’s not a good argument. That’s not the way people on either side do things around here.”