The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Kaine says he'd veto gas tax hike; A1

By Garren Shipley (Daily Staff Writer)

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine will veto any effort to raise the gas tax that doesn’t come with a funding “lockbox,” a spokeswoman said Monday.

Kaine announced a series of “town hall” meetings on transportation around the state to try to build bipartisan support for his efforts to fix the state’s transportation problems, which include a budget quickly shifting from construction to maintenance.

The plan that comes from the governor’s mansion won’t contain a tax hike, according to the nascent administration.

“The governor-elect’s position has not changed,” said press secretary Delacey Skinner. “He is going to veto any new source” of funding unless the General Assembly puts it off limits for anything but transit, she said.

Instead, Kaine will focus his efforts on linking transportation and land-use policies and other non-tax ways to improve the flow of traffic.

“He’s not planning on bringing any kind of gas tax increase to the table,” she said.

Back in Richmond, one group is already working on a package of legislation to deal with the situation.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, assembled a committee, the Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force, which has been meeting for months to come up with recommendations.

The panel has been receiving input from around the state all summer and meets again in Hampton on Friday, in anticipation of a recommendation to be announced in December.

While there hasn’t been a proposal from the panel yet, some documents and submissions to the body either make an outright call for an increase in gasoline taxes or suggest it strongly.

Ray D. Pethtel, a former chairman of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, made a presentation to the group in September that drew many parallels between 2006 and 1986 — the last time the state raised the gas tax, then by 2.5 cents.

An identical hike today would raise about $110 million per year, according to Pethtel. Other tax methods, such as applying a sales tax to gasoline sales, could bring in much more money.

Cost savings, not new taxes, are the best place to find new money for things like transportation, according to Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.

“We’ve got a lot of people in Virginia who don’t feel like they’re under-taxed. They feel just the opposite, they’re overtaxed,” he said.

With a $2 billion surplus likely to be in hand at the end of the fiscal year, it’s the best time to look at wasteful spending, Obenshain said.

“There are a lot of competing demands for money, including road building and education,” he said. And “I’ve never known the governmental agencies of Virginia to say, ‘We have enough, no matter what.’”

Making state government more efficient will “free up more money to spend on transportation, health care, law enforcement and education,” Obenshain said. “We’re not going to be able to do it through our surplus alone.”

Privatizing the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control stores would likely save the commonwealth some $700 million per year, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, the Washington-based activist group best known for its annual “Pig Book,” which details pork barrel spending by Congress.

Kaine has said the concept bears examination, but he wouldn’t support it if it increased the cost of alcohol enforcement.

In transportation-specific measures, the state could outsource the maintenance of state roads, an idea that has the backing of former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Phil Shucet.

Bidding out road maintenance done by VDOT could save $285 million each year, according to the “Virginia Piglet Book,” the state’s version of the “Pig Book.”

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Shucet wrote in a letter to Chichester’s commission in October. “I believe we can improve the delivery of maintenance services over the long term by outsourcing it to the private sector.”

Some major changes to how the state does business are already under way.

Gov. Mark R. Warner announced Monday that his administration had signed a deal with Northrop-Grumman to outsource more than 1,000 information technology jobs with the Virginia Information Technology Agency to locations in Chesterfield and Russell counties.

Virginia does need to take a hard look at how it spends money, according to Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, but it won’t be easy to make changes.

“I tend to agree with just about everything that’s in [the ‘Virginia Piglet’] book,” he said.

The GOP-controlled Senate played hardball in 2004 over taxes, and eventually won enough support in the more conservative GOP-controlled House to get a $1.6 billion tax hike through.

Cutting isn’t easy, either. Athey said he and other delegates have tried it on numerous occasions.

As a rule, the Senate “thinks every program is needed, every program is being run efficiently,” he said.

But “I think the last thing that we need to be doing right now is raising taxes when we’ve got a $2 billion surplus,” Athey said.