RICHMOND, Va. — For the third time this year, Virginia's two-year budget has died in the Senate's partisan crossfire, risking shutdown of state government operations and construction projects and leaving local government budgets in limbo.
A conference report on the $85 billion spending bill died on a 20-19 vote Tuesday as Democrats balked in a dispute with Republicans over funding for a high-priority transit project in northern Virginia.
The chamber's 20 Republicans, allied with Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, voted for it. Nineteen Democrats voted against it. Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, inexplicably left Capitol Square and did not vote.
Without a majority of 21 or more votes in the 40-member Senate, the bill dies. Legislative rules precluded any amendments to the conference report, and because it is an appropriations bill, the Constitution precluded Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling from casting the decisive vote.
Absent a budget, official state government functions would cease when the current one expires in 10½ weeks. Already, the Virginia Department of Transportation has notified major contractors to prepare to suspend road construction projects as early as next month if a budget is not passed.
A remote chance remained to resurrect the two-year budget on Wednesday when legislators consider Gov. Bob Mcdonnell's vetoes and amendments to other bills passed in the regular 2012 General Assembly. But the political will to do so seemed crushed late Tuesday beneath the sharp and seemingly irreconcilable rhetoric of a dramatic day.
"This is my 21st year in office up here, and I have to say this is the most fiscally irresponsible act that I've seen during my career," a grim-faced McDonnell told reporters outside the Executive Mansion after the vote.
Senate Democratic leaders blamed McDonnell's refusal during two days of closed-door talks to consider their demands for $300 million for a project to extend Washington Metro rail service to Dulles International Airport. McDonnell and the GOP have committed only to half that amount.
Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw said there was no appetite for compromise by Wednesday with the governor or the GOP, but that they would listen if McDonnell felt a need to bargain.
"Northern Virginia is the economic engine that drives this state. We contribute 40 percent of the revenue that keeps this state going," Saslaw said after the vote. "I didn't feel one bit embarrassed about going into his office and asking for additional funds for rail to Dulles."
McDonnell was equally adamant, saying flatly that Saslaw and Senate Democrats should drop what Republicans called obstructive brinksmanship.
"They're the problem. This is the third time in 90 days they've given us a reason about why they can't support a budget. It was clear the first day of the session when many (Democratic) senators said, 'We're not going to vote for a budget.' Well, they hadn't even seen the budget yet," McDonnell said.
Democrats kept moderate senators and those from rural areas with no stake in the exurban Washington project united against it in a politically dangerous vote to kill the budget.
Without additional state funding in the new budget for the Dulles project, $2.25 one-way tolls on a 14-mile road linking the Beltway and the airport could double by 2014 and triple within six years.
House Republicans adopted the conference report 77-19, and some Democrats joined them. In the Senate, however, prospects for passage darkened after Saslaw and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Donald McEachin finished huddling with McDonnell.
Democrats, particularly from the permanently congested Capital Beltway region, said the legislature has underfunded transportation too long and coped with it by forcing the state's most populous regions — northern Virginia and militarily strategic Hampton Roads — to pay their own way with tolls.
"We started Dulles rail a long time ago, now we're running bypasses around Charlottesville, we're doing Route (U.S.) 460 and can't figure out who wants these projects, there's no prioritization," said Sen. David Marsden of western Fairfax County, a region heavily dependent on the rail and toll road. "We're not paying for the projects we've already committed to, and we're sticking people with draconian kinds of tolls."
Without relief, Democrats said, the annual costs for tolls for people in western Fairfax or Loudoun counties would approach $6,000.
Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, one of the few Republicans who for years has advocated increased taxes for transportation, sympathized with the Democrats' intent, but rebuked them for pressing the demand now.
"We can't manufacture the money. It's got to come from somewhere," Watkins said, noting $3 billion was recently borrowed for highway projects.
Meanwhile, cities, counties and towns are in a lurch as mayors, councils and boards of supervisors struggle with cost increases for legislation intended to shore up Virginia's underfunded public employee pension system. Solutions include real estate tax increases, cuts in services or a mix of both.
Also in limbo are 2 percent pay raises next year for state personnel, faculty at public colleges and universities and state-supported local employees — their first since 2007 — and a 3 percent bonus in December.
Budget conference report highlights: http://bit.ly/HFX9lr