The Inner Circle Shrinks

Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chair of Senate Finance and Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chair of House Appropriations. Photo credit: Richmond Times Dispatch

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

In recent years, 13 or 14 Virginia delegates and senators have held extraordinary power and have been the envy of their colleagues. (The total number and the size of the delegation from each house varied over the years.)

They were the conferees on the budget bill and they had the power to make the final decisions on what would be in the budget bill. Their budget report could not be amended on the floor. It was an up or down vote on the whole report. It was inconceivable that either house would reject a budget conference report.

This year was different. There were still 14 conferees, but, from all reports, most did not participate in developing the budget conference report. It seems that only three members were the architects: Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chair of the House Appropriations Committee; Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chair of the Senate Finance Committee; and Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax). Not mentioned in the press, but surely instrumental in putting the conference amendments together, were the staffs of the two committees.

At the announcement of the budget deal, Knight made the extraordinary statement that, although the Governor “knows most of this,” he first needed to brief the other five House conferees. He was publicly talking about the budget deal before briefing the other House conferees?! On the other side of the conference committee members, some budget provisions, particularly the reinstatement of a criminal penalty for possession of more than four ounces of marijuana, caught some Senate conferees by surprise.

Knight called the conferee process “the most cordial negotiations I’ve even been involved with.” He and Howell obviously got along well while working out the budget together, along with their staffs. However, Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) was not pleased with the manner in which the budget agreement was reached, calling it “the most opaque process you could imagine.” It is also a far cry from the stories of controversy in the conference deliberations, including that of Sen. Hunter Andrews (D-Hampton), chair of the Senate Finance Committee and Bob Ball (D-Henrico), chair of the House Appropriations Committee arguing so hard with each other that they were “bumping bellies.”

There were the expected complaints about issues that did not get additional funding and some Republicans would have preferred more tax cuts, but the provisions that drew the most fire were the surprise policy changes: re-criminalization of marijuana possession; delay of casino referendum in Richmond; significant general support for a specific large highway project; and, most recently, the reduction in the amount of tax credits available for donations to certain scholarship programs.

Asked about the reason for the marijuana possession provision, Howell could reply only, “It’s so convoluted,” and made reference to a recent report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review  Commission, whose recommendation on the issue had been shelved by a committee in the House.

Obviously, Howell and Knight made deals during their “cordial” deliberations .  Some of the compromises are obvious. For others, however, who got what for what is open to speculation.  What is clear is that the inner circle of power brokers has grown a lot smaller.