RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly finally approved a budget Wednesday after Sen. Chuck Colgan broke with fellow Democrats and provided Senate Republicans with the one additional vote they needed to pass the spending plan without the Dulles Metro funding Democrats had been demanding.
Colgan, D-Manassas, shocked the Senate Tuesday when he voted with Democratic colleagues to reject the same two-year, $85 billion spending plan that he previously supported. But Colgan abruptly flipped again Wednesday and voted for the budget, thwarting Democratic efforts to secure up to $300 million more for the Dulles Metro project.
The budget goes to Gov. Bob McDonnell a month late but well ahead of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. After he receives it, McDonnell has seven days to make his amendments before it goes back the legislature. Passage is expected in early May.
The final compromise includes $214 million more than McDonnell proposed for education, including $40 million to help Northern Virginia school districts compete in the hiring of non-teaching staff. It also has an extra $47 million for social programs that Democrats sought.
Democrats opposed the budget because it didn’t include the additional funding for the Dulles Metro rail project that Northern Virginia officials believe will help drive the region’s economy in the future. Colgan met privately with McDonnell to seek a side agreement on the rail funding, coming away with a letter that expressed the governor's support for the project but promised no additional funding.
Democrats were outraged with the outcome and pressured Colgan to vote against the budget because it lacked the funding, which he did. Just 24 hours later, though, Colgan switched votes without a word of explanation on the floor and gave Republicans the lone Democratic vote they needed to pass the budget in the evenly divided chamber.
Colgan didn't warn fellow Democrats that he intended to switch his vote and left quickly after the vote, skipping Democrats' caucus meeting. Republicans knew for some time that Colgan planned to vote for the budge and dispatched state troopers to find Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake, who left Richmond to be with his sick wife in the hospital, to ensure they had the votes to pass it.
“It took us a little extra time to work through the process but this isn’t something that spontaneously happened this afternoon at the magic hour,” Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said. “It was the culmination of a lot of diligence and a lot of collegian relationships.”
Democrats, who left the capitol in high spirits Tuesday after defeating the budget for the third time, were on Wednesday seething at Republicans, and Colgan, their most senior member.
“I didn’t see it coming that way and neither did any of us,” Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said. “He didn’t tell us anything.”
Added Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston: “I knew he was tired and just wanted to go home. But there was no warning. ...We’re extremely disappointed.”
McDonnell sent Colgan another letter Wednesday promising to work with lawmakers to find more money to help finance the Dulles Metro project. McDonnell made no specific offer, but it was still enough for Colgan.
At one point, Norment said on the floor that both sides were still working on Dulles funding, including taking money from other state road projects, but those deliberations became moot when Colgan informed Republicans he would vote for the budget with a side deal.
“I thought we would do better than we did,” Saslaw said. “There’s a lot more money for schools and for health and human services, but when it comes to transportation, [the Republican] Party just has absolutely no interest in doing anything for Northern Virginia. It was unbelievable.”
McDonnell countered that Democrats held the budget hostage to a single project.
“No budget contains funding for every program that each legislator supports,” McDonnell said. “Unfortunately, some Senate Democrats spent the session seeking multiple excuses to vote against the budget.”
The budget vote dominated the General Assembly’s annual veto session in which lawmakers burned through more than 130 amendments and seven vetoes from McDonnell.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, lawmakers rejected changes McDonnell sought to soften a voter ID bill, with Republicans complaining that the amendments gutted the legislation and Democrats arguing that the proposed changes would have burdened poll workers. The bill required any voter without a photo ID to fill out a provisional ballot that would only be counted only after the voter returned with a valid ID. McDonnell proposed that the voter sign the provisional ballot and that it be counted immediately if the signature matched one on file with the state.
McDonnell said Wednesday he may just veto the voter ID bill that his fellow Republicans insist was needed to prevent voter fraud.
The House and Senate adopted McDonnell’s amendments to a voucher-like program that provides tax credits to companies that award scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools. McDonnell lifted the $175,000 cap in tax credits that one company can receive.
The legislature failed to muster the votes needed to override McDonnell's seven vetoes.