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

Monday, February 27, 2006

Budget proposals contain similar education figures; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

It doesn’t matter whose budget gets passed. Schools in the Northern Shenandoah Valley are in line for millions in new state funding.

As Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the House of Delegates and the Senate scrap over which version of their two-year budgets will become the law of the land, the three have independently arrived at very similar numbers for area school funding.

Delegates approved their budget earlier this week in a 69-30 vote, while the Senate voted 39-1 in favor of its own plan. Both represent bipartisan, veto-proof majorities.

At budget time, “my primary concern was to ensure additional funding for our public schools in the Shenandoah Valley,” says Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, in a statement issued after the vote.

“This proposed budget accomplishes that goal without raising taxes during a time when Virginia’s economy is experiencing a 1.3 billion dollar budget surplus,” he said.

Democrats in the House weren’t quite as happy with the plan.

“The House budget is fiscally irresponsible and shortchanges a range of vital needs,” says House Minority Leader Franklin Hall, D-Richmond, in a prepared statement issued after the vote.

On the whole, he said, the House budget shorts education when compared to the Kaine and Senate plans.
Regardless of who’s talking, the plans are all a solid pop for the bottom line locally.

For Shenandoah County, the differences in fiscal 2007 are relatively small — $5.37 million in new funding from the House of Delegates, $5.38 million via the Kaine administration and $5.41 million from the Senate.

All three numbers represent roughly a 20 percent increase over funding levels in 2006, according to figures supplied by both houses and the administration, with a total appropriation of about $33 million.

That looks like good news for the county, where officials confirmed after a budget meeting that they were expecting only $4.1 million in new money from Richmond this fiscal year.

In Warren County, the news wasn’t as good, but it wasn’t bad, either. All three versions of the budget include about $2.5 million in new funding for the first half of the biennium.

“It’s not different than we had already built into our budget,” said Superintendent Pamela McInnis. Schools have been waiting on word from Richmond about the status of negotiations, but information has been slow to trickle out, she said.

Compared to what they were expecting, the new numbers are at worst a wash, she said.

“We’re talking a couple of thousand dollars here and there,” she said, not an insignificant amount, but small compared to a total appropriation of some $26 million for the year.

Even so, Warren would be slightly better off if negotiators lean toward the House plan, McInnis said.

“Even though it has the highest amount of money of [the plans],” she said, the Senate plan raises the level each system would have to contribute to retirement plans.

“Even though they give us more money … it’s going to cost us another $93,000” in retirement costs, she said.

Other systems in the area are also in line for comparable increases in all three plans. Frederick County would get a 17 percent bump in funding in all three, while Clarke gets 11 percent and Winchester gets 15 percent.

Frederick’s budget gets the largest overall first-year boost, at $8.9 million in all three plans, for a $62 million state contribution in fiscal 2007. Clarke County gets the least of the five local districts, about $850,000 in new money, in all three plans.

Further increases are included for all five systems in the second half of the budget.

Negotiators for both sides now have to sit down and hammer out a compromise that can pass both houses. Once that happens, it will go to Kaine for his signature and changes.

Legislators are scheduled to leave Richmond on March 11 and return in April to act on Kaine’s changes to their bills.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

House plan contains $50 million for car tax; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

Yes, Virginia, there is still a car tax. But it might not get its fangs back this year after all.

It hasn’t garnered much publicity, but deep in the House of Delegates transportation plan is $50 million designed to keep the state from running out of money before it picks up its share of local car tax bills.

“I think [the extra car tax relief] was a late bloomer” in the House’s transportation deliberations, joked Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee.

Born during former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore’s run for office in 1997, the car tax “rollback” required the state to start writing checks to reimburse local government for a share of property tax revenue on personal cars and trucks that they had lost.

If the tax collections had stayed strong, the state would have covered the entire tax starting in 2002. Tax collections softened during the “dot-com” bust and post-9/11 economic slump, and legislators froze the reimbursement at 70 percent.

In 2004, faced with what looked like a financial crisis and danger to the state’s pristine bond rating, legislators gutted the phaseout and replaced it with an annual line item in the state’s general fund budget — $950 million, starting in fiscal 2006.

That started a long string of complicated procedural changes for local governments around the state as they worked with Richmond to figure out just how much the state would cover and how much drivers would pay.

Legislators have been hearing about it, too.

“Distribution is turning into a nightmare as we bump up against the cap,” May said. “We’re acutely aware of that.”

Treasurers and commissioners of revenue from across the state have expressed their displeasure at the massive complication that the new system has created.

The “ugly fact of life is that the [commissioners of revenue and others officials] really had their hands full in trying to get their monies distributed,” he said.

Despite calls to roll back the tax completely, the House decided it was better to raise the cap to $1 billion than try to end the levy entirely.

“We’re pegging it at 70 percent because that’s where we’ve been for the past couple of years,” May said.

Setting aside $50 million out of a $74 billion proposed budget may not look like much, but it would have a significant impact on taxpayers’ bottom lines and complications at the county courthouse.

State officials still have some time to work out the final details and tell local governments what percentage the state will pick up. Early estimates in Shenandoah County suggested that the state’s share would be 62 percent this year.

At the current rate of $2.86 per $100 of assessed valued, that would have a significant impact on tax bills.

If the state picks up the 70 percent it has up until now, the tax paid in Shenandoah County on a $20,000 car would be $171.60. If that percentage drops to 62 percent, the bill goes up 27 percent to $217.36.

Transportation plans put forward by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and the GOP-controlled Senate don’t contain similar provisions.

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said the governor would take a dim view of the House plan. While he supported former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s plan to kill the tax once and for all over the long term, it’s not a battle he’s looking to join.

“The governor would be reluctant to revisit the issue unless it can be shown that busting the cap can be done in a fiscally responsible way,” he said.

Calls to members of the Senate Finance Committee weren’t immediately returned Wednesday.

Even with probable opposition, May said he’s mildly optimistic that the cap can be boosted.

“I’d say there’s a reasonable chance” the measure will wind up in a plan signed by Kaine.

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Va. appeal may be decided when U.S. high court hears case; B1

Note: This is a sidebar to a national story about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear Gonzales v. Carhart, a case which struck down a national partial birth abortion ban. But you knew that, because you bought the paper. Right?--GS

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

When the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether a federal ban on the procedure often called partial-birth abortion is legal, Virginia will be watching closely.

The high court may be deciding if Virginia’s law is constitutional at the same time.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, asking the court to combine an appeal of Virginia’s statute with Gonzales v. Carhart, an appeal of a lower court decision to strike down a similar federal statute.

“If this court chooses to grant review in Gonzales, it should either hold this petition pending the outcome … or should grant review and schedule argument for the same time Gonzales is argued,” McDonnell wrote.

Justices have not scheduled Virginia’s certiorari request for a conference, a court spokes-person said Monday. If four justices decide to hear the case, it would either be scheduled for argument or included with Gonzales.

A federal court in Nebraska struck down a 2003 federal law that prohibited doctors from performing the procedure, where the fetus is partially removed from the womb and its skull is either punctured or crushed.

Supporters say the method is the safest way to end a pregnancy for women with serious health problems.

Court action on the Gonzales case will generate a great deal of interest, since it is the first time the high court has considered an abortion issue since the appointment of two new, conservative members — Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.

Virginia lawmakers passed restrictions on the procedure, also known as dilation and extraction, during their 2003 session over the objections of then-Gov. Mark R. Warner.

Richmond Medical Center for Women immediately sued the commonwealth’s attorneys in Richmond and Henrico County to block enforcement of the law.

The case eventually wound up before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, where last summer a three-judge panel struck down the law as unconstitutional, as it did not provide an exception for the procedure to be performed if it was necessary to protect the life and health of the mother.

An appeal for rehearing also was denied.

Before leaving office in January, Attorney General Judith Jagdamann started the process of appealing the 4th Circuit’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her successor, McDonnell, is continuing the process.

“We are optimistic the Supreme Court ruling will make clear that the federal partial birth abortion ban is constitutional, and therefore so is the commonwealth’s,” said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell.

In Monday’s filing, McDonnell argues that the 4th Circuit erred by striking the law down without question on the basis that it contained no “life and health” provision.

Previous Supreme Court decisions have held that to be an improper way to view the law, he wrote, when a law may only be partially unconstitutional.

“Federal courts should ‘enjoin only the unconstitutional applications while leaving other applications in force,’” he wrote, citing a 2005 case.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is arguing against Virginia law, did not immediately return calls for comment Tuesday.

But Suzanne Novak, a staff attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group, has previously called the Virginia statute [a] “dangerous law” that will “put women at risk by preventing physicians from performing the safest and most common second trimester abortion procedures with no exception for their patients’ health.”

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

By the numbers: What's in it for the Northern Shenandoah Valley?

Yet another stunning adaptation of a graphic that appeared in the pages of The Daily. For the full contextual impact of this information, though, you really need to see it in print. But you've already got a copy, because you're a subscriber. Of course you are...

Other items of interest included in the competing budget plans.

• Belle Grove Plantation, $50,000
• Clarke County Historical Association, $37,500
• New Market Library, $50,000
• Our Health, $250,000
• Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, $100,000
• Wayside Theatre, $25,000
• Warren Coalition Free Wheeling Handicapped Playground, $50,000
• Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, $40,000
• Woodstock Museum of Shenandoah County, $5,765

• Winchester Frederick County Historical Society, $20,000
• Belle Grove Plantation, $50,000
• Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, $200,000
• Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, $500,000

Items included in former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s initial proposal:
• Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, $200,000
• Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum: $500,000

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Funds for I-81 just one difference in two Va. budgets; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

They both spend a lot of money.

But only one of the two surviving transportation plans in the General Assembly has specific funds set aside for Interstate 81 improvements.

Budget writers in the House of Delegates and Senate rolled out divergent visions of where spending should go in the commonwealth over the next two years on Sunday, setting the stage for a final confrontation between the two Republican-controlled bodies as they work toward a spending plan that can get a majority in both houses.

It would be difficult for the two plans to be more different.

House leaders want to spend about $2 billion over the next four years in addition to current budgets with no tax increases, while the Senate wants to expand that funding to about $4 billion through a series of tax hikes.

Both plans generate money through “abuser fees” levied on bad drivers, but the House gets the lion’s share of its money from the general fund. The Senate applies a tax to the wholesale cost of gasoline and triples the grantor’s tax, a levy on home sales.

One area of local interest where the two part company is money for improvements to Interstate 81.

Out of $600 million earmarked to come from the general fund next year, delegates have included $75 million for spot improvements that would alleviate bottlenecks and help traffic flow more smoothly along the highway, like the addition of climbing lanes in steep areas.

The budget draft also includes $45 million to upgrade rails from Front Royal to Manassas.

Rail officials and delegates describe the area as a bottleneck impeding traffic between Norfolk Southern’s two primary north-south lines in Virginia — one follows the I-81 corridor through the Shenandoah Valley, while the other sticks close to U.S. 29 through Central Virginia to Lynchburg.

Improving the Front Royal-to-Manassas line would make it easier to ship to and from the Virginia Inland Port, keeping a significant number of big rigs off the highway, according to Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

“We’ve looked at each region of the commonwealth, and have designated projects that will make a difference in ending congestion, increasing safety, and enhancing mobility,” Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation subcommittee, says in a statement.

The Senate version spends more than $1.1 billion on new highway construction over the biennium, but doesn’t make any specific earmarks for the region’s major highway. Instead, the $663 million in new annual funding will be distributed through existing VDOT funding formulas.

Calls to the office of Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, weren’t immediately returned Monday. Potts is the local member of the Senate Finance Committee, which drafted the bill.

The taxation portion of the Senate plan, Senate Bill 708, passed 34-6 on Friday. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, whose district includes Shenandoah and Warren counties, was one of six senators who voted against the bill.

There was a lot more in Sunday’s committee action of im-port to the Northern Shenan-doah Valley than roads.
Obenshain and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, both successfully sought authorization for a new regional jail to serve Shenandoah, Rappahannock, Page and Warren counties in their respective bills.

All four localities have ex-pressed interest in joining forces to study a regional facility, much like the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester, which serves four local governments.

Legislators stopped new jail construction during the budget difficulties during the early part of the decade.

“The exception will allow the feasibility study to go forward,” Gilbert says in a statement, “so there is a very good chance the study will go forward. Eventually, most of the 15th district plus Warren County could share a regional facility that would end the overcrowding in our county jails.”

Obenshain’s request went a step further, allowing for the state to pick up half the costs of construction, provided the state signs off on the study authorized by Gilbert’s language.

“The prospect for regional cooperation and improved correctional infrastructure in these four counties is an exciting prospect,” Obenshain says in a press release. “I am pleased that these counties can continue to explore the feasibility of this project.”

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Valley’s senators take opposing sides on bill: A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

The two members of the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s delegation to the Virginia Senate came down on opposite sides of the panel’s transportation plan Friday.

Both state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, took to the floor to argue their points of view, according to statements released later.

Billions of dollars in new taxes on cars, gasoline, houses and bad driving may be painful, but they’re the only way to fix problems in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, Potts said.

“The only way we fix this is with long-term, consistent stable, reliable revenue streams,” said Potts, addressing the Senate.
Taking money from the state’s general fund, as has been proposed by the House of Delegates, is simply a bad idea, he said.

Virginia will need money in this year’s surplus to pay for bigger bills coming down the pike.

“Next year the state of Virginia is going to get hit with the worst hit in history on Medicaid reimbursements,” Potts said, referring to federal efforts to shift more Medicaid costs, traditionally a federal-state partnership, to the state level.

“This is going to be a long-term investment, and that’s why it cannot be out of the general fund,” he said.
Obenshain praised those who worked on the plan, but said he had serious concerns about how it would work.

“There are severe problems with the mechanics of it, and there are severe problems with the equity of it,” Obenshain said.

Both the new “rack rate” gasoline sales tax and increase in the grantor’s tax on homes are hitting people who can least afford it.

Those people who are the least likely to keep their gasoline receipts and turn them in for reimbursement are also the least likely to be able to pay for higher gas costs, he said, referring to a mechanism for motorists to get partial refunds of the gas tax.

“There are $180 billion worth of coupons issued annually in the United States, and about 1.3 percent of those coupons are actually redeemed,” he said.

“I can’t support this bill and go back to the Shenandoah Valley with the surplus that we’ve generated over the past couple of years,” Obenshain said.

Virginia ended fiscal 2005 more than $500 million in the black, and projections call for the state to rack up another $1.3 billion by the end of fiscal 2006.

Obenshain was one of six senators who voted against the measure Friday.

The vote came as no surprise to the Blue Ridge Association of Realtors, according to a former member of House of Delegates. Winsome Sears, a Republican from Norfolk who serves as the group’s spokeswoman, said the Senate should be looking elsewhere for transportation funds.

Housing is already taxed to the hilt in Virginia, she said. A $200,000 home now incurs more than $1,600 in fees and taxes when the transaction is completed.

And in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, where there are few $200,000 homes being sold, the burden is even higher.
“The average price of a home in Winchester is $308,000, in Frederick County it’s $322,000, and more than $400,000 in Clarke County,” Sears said.

“Housing is not a luxury,” she said. “People need shelter.”

The Top of Virginia Builders Association also took a dim view of Friday’s events.

“It’s just one more addition to the cost of a house,” not that the House of Delegates plan is much more of a prize, said the association’s president, J.P. Carr.

While it doesn’t raise taxes, it extends voluntary proffers to the vast majority of local governments and encourages them to use those funds with some state money to build road projects locally.

“I don’t think proffers are a good model. They’re not sustainable. If we have a slowdown in the housing market, they disappear,” Carr said.

The House and Senate will begin negotiations in earnest next week after budget writers on both sides introduce their version of the state’s two-year spending plan on Sunday.

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State aid to good causes may not be entirely legal; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Legislators like to give state funds to good causes. It’s been that way for years.

But is it legal? It’s a matter getting some discussion in political circles, and the answer isn’t black and white.

Aid to non-government entities has a long history in Virginia.

“We’ve been doing [grants to] non-state agencies for a long time,” said Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester. The current state budget spends $34.1 million on non-state agencies in fiscal 2005 and 2006.

Former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s proposed final budget includes some $19.8 million over the next two years for museums, theaters and memorials.

Senators and delegates have proposed more than 200 additions to that total, which would spend another $135.7 million.

Budget writers in both the House of Delegates and the Senate are winnowing their way through those requests, in preparation for the release of each chamber’s version of the budget this weekend.

But the question of legality — which started as an offhand question from some in the state’s political chattering classes — apparently doesn’t have a solid answer.

In question is Article IV, section 16, of the Virginia Constitution.

It reads in part: “The General Assembly shall not make any appropriation of public funds … to any church or sectarian society … Nor shall the General Assembly make any like appropriation to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled by the Commonwealth.”

It goes on to make an exception for “nonsectarian institutions for the reform of youthful criminals” and gives legislators the power to let local governments provide grants to charities of all stripes.

Bloggers first raised the question earlier this month, as amendments to the budget began to move forward.

The discussion moved into the realm of elected officials when the legality of grants to some groups was questioned on the Web log of the legislature’s bipartisan Cost Cutting Caucus, a group seeking to reduce the cost of state government through reform.

Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, the caucus chairman, said he was surprised to hear the question asked.

“No one has challenged it before,” he said. “It’s just never brought up,” but not in the sense that longtime members ask newcomers to keep quiet.

Members literally don’t talk about it. “I’ve never heard it discussed,” he said.

Freshman Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said earlier this month that he wasn’t sure about the law, and was asking Attorney General Bob McDonnell’s office for clarification.

Sherwood said it was her non-lawyer understanding that the grants were OK, depending on where they were going.

“As long as the money is going to an entity that is for public use, it is not unconstitutional to do so,” she said. “There is no prohibition.”

A spokesman for Gov. Tim Kaine said Friday that the matter is a “legislative prerogative” and the governor’s focus is on transportation this session, not non-state agencies.

Courts in the commonwealth have apparently never taken up the matter directly, although they have bumped into it on occasion, according to McDonnell’s office.

While the office declined to provide an official opinion — constitutional officers from local and state government are among the few who can request such a ruling — it did point to a 1984 opinion on whether a state-created corporation would fall under the section.

“This constitutional prohibition may be avoided if the organization to which the appropriation is made is not ‘charitable’ or, if charitable, is ‘owned or controlled by the Commonwealth,’” wrote then-Attorney General Gerald Baliles. He would go on to be governor.

But what exactly does charitable mean? That’s something that the state’s 1971 constitution doesn’t answer, but the Supreme Court of Virginia has delved into the matter.

In the 1964 case City of Richmond v. United Givers Fund, the court took the word to mean, at least for purposes of taxation, “liberal, in benefactions to the poor; beneficent.”

But the same court opinion also uses another definition.

“The same case defines the word somewhat more broadly as being limited to an institution which is ‘organized and conducted to perform some service of public good or welfare,’” wrote Baliles, citing the case.

Constitutional issues aside, non-state agencies are a good buy for the public’s dollar, Sherwood said.

“Our non-state agencies are certainly much more efficient in their use of the money,” she said.
Further, they’re vital to some areas.

“In the more rural areas of the state it’s a necessity. Not everyone in my district can get to a museum in Richmond or the Tidewater,” she said. “For the valley, these non-state agency requests are very important.”

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Northern Shenandoah Valley Crossover Scorecard

Another great example of a graphic from the Daily that looks much better on paper. Of course, you knew that, because you bought one this morning. Right?

General Assembly bills still alive are either under consideration, incorporated into other surviving bills or passed by one chamber and pending in the other.

Bill totals do not reflect resolutions or joint resolutions.

Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal

Noteworthy legislation:
HB 1506, which makes the vast majority of the state’s local governments eligible to accept zoning proffers — passed.
HB 1111, which would have prohibited anyone without a physical therapy license from advertising physical therapy services — failed.

Bills introduced: 22
Bills still alive: 15
Passed House: 12

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock

Noteworthy legislation:
HB 782, which makes murder conspirators, not just the “triggerman,” eligible for the death penalty — passed.
HJR 143: Would have stopped the state’s negotiations with STAR Solutions to build a truck tollway along the length of I-81 — failed.

Bills introduced: 10
Bills still alive: 5
Passed House: 5

Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg

Noteworthy legislation:
HB 816, which restricts the use of data collected by automatic recorders in cars — passed.
HB 1120, which would have legalized radar detectors — failed.

Bills introduced: 16
Bills still alive: 8
Passed House: 7

Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester

Noteworthy legislation:
HB 1004, which makes the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness a permanent position — passed.
HB 344, which would have required owners of all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles to get titles for the machines from the Department of Motor Vehicles — failed.

Bills introduced: 12
Bills still alive: 8
Passed House: 7
Passed both chambers: 1

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg

Noteworthy legislation:
SB 345, makes selling fake ID cards a felony — passed.
SB 334, which would have required libraries that receive state funding to use pornography filters on Internet connected computers — failed.

Bills introduced: 19
Bills still alive: 8
Passed Senate: 6
Passed both chambers: 1

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester

Noteworthy legislation:
SB 686, which would raise the sales tax to pay for transportation initiatives — combined with main Senate plan, SB 708, still pending.
SB 599, which would have required physical education for high school juniors and seniors — failed.

Bills introduced: 6
Bills still alive: 4
Passed Senate: 3

— Source: General Assembly Legislative Information Services

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Gilbert opposes transportation bill; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

A watered-down version of legislation that would have put the brakes on a proposed massive expansion of Interstate 81 just isn’t good enough, according to one local member of the House of Delegates.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, says he’s going to try to kill Senate Joint Resolution 165, which at one time was almost identical to legislation Gilbert introduced himself.

Gilbert submitted a resolution that would have “requested” that the Virginia Department of Transportation call off its negotiations with STAR Solutions, a consortium of companies vying to improve and expand Interstate 81.

The firm put forward an unsolicited proposal to expand the highway into a 12-lane, truck tollway, with federal dollars and tolls on big rigs paying for the massive expansion.

VDOT is negotiating with the firms now while it undertakes an environmental review of the project. Department officials have said that review, not STAR Solutions’ plan, will dictate the size and nature of the expansion.

Gilbert’s HJ 143 had wide support from legislators, preservation and trucking groups in the Shenandoah and Roanoke valleys from Winchester to Bristol. It would have laid the groundwork for building an extra lane for the entire length of the roadway.

But it ran into a buzz saw in the House Rules Committee.

It was defeated after representatives of VDOT said it would tie their hands too much in improving the highway, and some members dismissed it as “fatally flawed.”

Now that the two chambers have started to take up each other’s bills, the Senate version, authored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, is before House Rules, but it’s not the version Hanger submitted to committee.

The Senate Rules Committee replaced it with a resolution that makes no reference to stopping negotiations with STAR.

Both STAR Solutions and editorial writers at large newspapers in the state have taken issue with Gilbert’s position, saying that fears of tolls on cars are unfounded.

“Let me be very clear,” wrote STAR Solutions spokesman Chris Lloyd in a letter to Gilbert and others in the I-81 corridor delegation. “Tolls on automobiles are not a part, nor have they ever been a part of our plan to improve I-81.”

“I’m keeping that letter,” Gilbert said, noting that he’s heard from others that there’s no way to make the project pay for itself without tolling automobiles.

The freshman delegate didn’t mince words when asked where he stood on Hanger’s resolution.
“VDOT managed to water it down considerably,” Gilbert said on Wednesday. “I’m going to do everything I can to kill it.”

Requests for a reaction from VDOT were referred to Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer, who was not immediately available for comment.

As written, the bill does nothing to protect the Shenandoah Valley, Gilbert said.

“It’s wide open,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything substantive at all.”

Gilbert said he’s not upset with Hanger. Political realties are what they are in the Senate, and its takes 21 votes to get legislation to move forward.

A number of legislators in the General Assembly are worried about the movement of commerce along the state’s western spine and want to take action to be sure traffic doesn’t hurt the state’s economy, Gilbert said.

“That’s all well and good,” he said. “But we have to live here.”

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Governor, Senate and House vie for support; A1

Senate reworks its plan, House decries new taxes in face of new surplus numbers, Kaine takes his plan on the road

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

At the Transportation Cafeteria in Capitol Square, the debate isn’t so much what to order.

It’s about how much to order. And who’s going to pick up the tab.

With the legislative session half over, members of the House of Delegates and Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine are trying to boost support for their plans to fix the state’s transportation system, while the Senate did a major last-minute overhaul of its plan Tuesday.

Kaine is touring the state on a second round of “town hall” style meetings to bolster support for his plan, while the House and Senate have until the end of the week to finish work on their competing revenue bills.

“Fixing transportation means adopting funding policies that make transportation as high a priority in this commonwealth as education, health care, and public safety,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, at a press conference announcing the Senate plan in January.

A rewrite of the plan released Tuesday was redesigned to make sure “out of state motorists pay their fair share,” according to talking points distributed by the Senate Finance Committee.

That’s all well and good, but Virginia is in no position to ask for more tax revenue, according to one of the House’s leading Republicans.

“There’s nothing that the Senate of Virginia doesn’t want to tax,” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, after reviewing the changes to the Senate’s plan.

There is some room for negotiation, but there’s no love for new taxes in the House of Delegates. One big reason for that is the state’s projected fiscal 2006 surplus has risen from $860 million to somewhere around $1.3 billion.

“There’s a couple of fees that we could talk about,” Athey said. “It’s ridiculous to be asking the taxpayers to be paying additional taxes.”

But for all the sniping back and forth, there’s a lot of common ground among the three plans. For example, everyone wants to spend at least $2 billion more on transportation over the next four years.

The House, Senate and Kaine have all made some efforts to reform the relationship between land-use decisions and the way the Virginia Department of Transportation deals with roads.

At the moment, the two aren’t that closely connected. Local governments, most of which have no responsibility for roads, make land-use decisions, while VDOT has only a consultative role in local land-use decisions.

Such is the legacy of the Byrd Road Law, a Depression-era action that gave localities the option to hand over their roads to the state, passed under the administration of Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr.

Kaine’s plan included a direct veto for local governments on development. If the project would over-stress the local roads, a city council or board of supervisors could kill it.

It died in a House subcommittee.

All three also want to implement “abuser fees” that would charge high annual fees for drivers with serious traffic convictions or a number of demerit points on their license — some as much as $1,000.

There are also stark differences in the plans.

The one put forward by some senators hews much closer to the Byrd legacy, continuing the state’s “pay as you go” approach to highway construction that eschews road debt.

Senators have pushed a $3.8 billion, four-year tax increase to pay for new construction and maintenance under existing distribution formulas.

But the Tuesday rewrite isn’t quite as Byrd-like as its predecessor.

“The devolution of state responsibilities in transportation should continue with more flexibility provided to local and regional entities for spending,” the Senate Finance Committee says in its talking points.

Until the major Senate rewrite on Tuesday, Kaine’s plan wasn’t that different.

Just a few months removed from a campaign full of Republican “Tim Kaine will raise the gas tax” ads, the administration proposes leaving all of the state’s motor fuel levies at current levels.

Republicans in the House, though, are somewhat more inclined to reverse the Byrd transportation legacy. All of it.

A package of VDOT reforms moving through the House would privatize interstate maintenance and start the process of putting road decisions and financing back into the hands of local governments.

Republicans would also spend existing revenues, rather than raise taxes, but use about $100 million a year to pay for road debt for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

That would serve as a “lockbox” for transportation revenues, according to Athey.

Both the House and Senate plans include generic promises for I-81 — the House in its $552 million, one-time expenditure, the Senate in its annual $200 million rural transportation improvement fund — but are short on details.

Kaine’s plan has much more detail, but not much money — a total of $50 million in federal and state improvements to the highway to improve freight transport and safety.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Transportation: They've got a plan

Both chambers of the General Assembly and Gov. Tim Kaine have put forward plans to fix Virginia's transportation system. This is a brief scorecard for those playing at home, drawn from a graphic in Wednesday's Daily. It's much better in print, so go buy a paper.

House of Delegates
Who’s responsible?
The GOP Caucus of the House of Delegates.

How much does it spend?
Some $2.02 billion over four years in direct funding, with room to leverage much more in bond funding.

Where does it spend it?
About $100 million a year goes to two 10-year revolving bond funds for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads for construction, which could leverage as much as $1.2 billion over the life of the bonds.

The biggest chunk, $552 million, goes to “critical projects,” like fixing choke points along Interstates 81, 66 and 64. Some $114 million goes to help buy things like railcars for Metro and another $180 million goes to help shore up highway maintenance.

Where does the money come from?
The state’s general fund, some shifted revenues and a new set of “abuser fees” for those convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies on the highway.

How much would you pay?
That depends on just how bad your driving is. The only new tax or fee associated with the plan is an “abuser fee,” which begins with a charge of $100 per year for someone with four points on their license. Some offenses rack up $1,000 per year fees.

Land-use changes?
Lots. A package of bills makes it easier for local governments to accept proffers from developers, use those proffers to match state money for local road projects and plan for those projects in the long term.

What does it do for I-81?
Specifics haven’t been forthcoming, but some Republicans in the House of Delegates have said they want to make I-81 expansion a top priority for the $552 million.

What are the big picture ideas?
Local control, no tax hikes. Delegates want to start to shift control of roads away from VDOT toward local governments and the private sector. As one member put it, the plan puts “VDOT on probation.”

What do the other guys say?
Senate: Wants to see more money spent, doesn’t like tapping a half billion dollars from the general fund.
Kaine: Is open to the idea of debt for roads, but is wary of spending a great deal of general fund money.

Who’s responsible?
A bipartisan group of senators led by President Pro Tem John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, who took their recommendations from last year’s Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force.

How much does it spend?
Some $3.95 billion over the next four years.

Where does it go?
The same places it does now. SB 708 would spend an extra $663 million per year on VDOT’s annual construction budget.

Another $210 million would go to a local governments based on the amount of money raised in their jurisdictions to be used as they see fit for transportation.

Where does the money come from?
Higher sales taxes on cars and trucks, a hike in the diesel and gasoline taxes, 1.5 cents per gallon and about 10 cents per gallon, respectively, but drivers could apply for a rebate of their gas taxes at the end of the year.

Vehicle registration fees would go up $10, and the grantor’s tax — charged to the person selling real estate — would triple from 10 cents per $100 of assessed value to 30 cents per $100 of assessed value.

How much would you pay?
Drivers would pay the most in the form of extra fees for registration, higher gas taxes and a 25 percent increase in vehicle sales taxes starting in 2008. Those with eight demerit points on their record would also pay “abuser fees.”

Real estate transactions would also get more expensive, going up $400 for a $200,000 house.

Land-use changes?
The plan contains a “transfer of development rights” program designed to get more houses in fewer places, thus lowering infrastructure costs. It also requires more planning on the part of VDOT.

What does it do for I-81?
Nothing specific. The plan adds more money to current VDOT funding formulas, but doesn’t make any special allocations for the highway. Local governments would be eligible for more funding for I-81 projects, though.

What are the big picture ideas?
“User fees.” START pursued an “everybody plays, everybody pays” from day one, but the overall package spends some time talking to VDOT and land-use reform as well.

What do the other guys say?
House: Opposes new taxes.
Kaine: Doesn’t support raising gas taxes.

Kaine Administration
Who’s responsible?
Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and his administration.

How much does it spend?
Some $3.7 billion over four years.

Where does it spend it?
Like the other plans, it’s not real specific on the expenditure side, other than to say that spend about half the money, $1.5 billion, to balance the state’s maintenance budget

Some $586 million goes to pay for more mass transit initiatives. Another $473 million is set aside to pay old bond debt and increase construction funding, while $312 million goes to match federal set asides for Virginia.

Where does the money come from?
Abuser fees, higher vehicle registration fees and raising the sales tax on cars to 5 percent. Some $339 million would come from the state’s General Fund.

How much would you pay?
As much as $13 more for tags and about $18 per year more for car insurance, according to the administration.

Land-use changes?
The hallmark of the plan was a bill to let local governments veto development if it would over burden the local transportation network. It died in committee.

What does it do for I-81?
It spends $10 million to match another $40 million for freight movement and safety improvements along the entire corridor.

What are the big picture ideas?
Tying land-use to transportation, don’t raise the gas tax. Kaine’s plan sticks close to the “user fee” model. But after a gubernatorial campaign filled with “Kaine will raise the gas tax” ads, fuel taxes are nowhere to be seen in Kaine’s plan.

What do the other guys say?
House: New taxes won’t fly when the state has a surplus.
Senate: Not much, other than some saying that they were uncomfortable with taking so much from the state’s general fund.

Full Story...

Bill would raise fees for those selling real estate; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — When the Virginia Senate reworked its transportation plan on Tuesday, it included a major increase in one of the commonwealth’s more obscure taxes.

But one local group affected by the potential change says it intends to fight.

Senate Bill 708 has emerged as the vehicle for the upper house’s plans to raise more money for transportation. Members of the Senate Finance Committee gutted the bill — which had called for a 66 percent hike in the sales tax on cars, among other things — at a meeting Tuesday morning.

In its place, the committee offered a plan that would raise about $210 million per year for local transportation projects through a hike in the grantor’s tax, which is levied on the seller of the real property at the time of the sale.

The tax is currently 10 cents per $100 of assessed value. The proposed increase would bring the tax to 30 cents.

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, is one of the bill’s patrons. It was reported out of Senate Finance 15-to-0.

Members of the Blue Ridge Association of Realtors think it’s a bad idea — and they intend to tell the General Assembly to look elsewhere for revenue today.

The association, made up of Realtors from Clarke, Frederick and Warren counties, already took a hit when recordation fees were increased in the budget deal of 2004, which raised taxes by about $1.5 billion, said former Del. Winsome Earle Sears,
R-Norfolk, a spokeswoman for the group.

“They can’t keep saying they want everyone to be able to own their own home” and keep raising taxes associated with home ownership, she said.

Back in 2004, legislators went to the real estate well and raised the recordation tax, the fee levied by the state to record deeds, by 40 percent — part of $770 million in new general fund revenue.

SB 708 would triple the state grantor’s levy — which is added to the cost of a new home by sellers, said Sears. The rate would climb from 10 cents per $100 of assessed value to 30 cents, with a local option to add another dime.

In Winchester, that would take the levy on the average home price of $308,503 from $308 to $924. If the city were to enact the local option, the cost would climb to $1,234. The money would go to fund local transportation projects.

“We’ve done our part, so our legislators and governor must protect the Transportation Trust Fund once and for all without raising taxes,” says Brad Boland, the association’s legislative chairman, in a statement.

The idea behind the levy is simple — give local governments more flexibility in how they deal with their own transportation problem, according to talking points distributed by the Senate Finance Committee.

Money raised in a city or county would stay there, but it would be earmarked for transportation. It has the potential to generate $315 million annually for transportation projects, according to committee staffers.

Across the Capitol lobby in the House of Delegates, the tax was dismissed by some Republicans out of hand. The new version of SB 708 contains “three or four new gimmick taxes” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, but nothing of substance.

If it is to pass, Senate leaders must bring it forward for a vote by the end of the week.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

GOP will unveil transportation plan today; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Republican House of Delegates members want to start building new roads now and have put the Virginia Department of Transportation on notice.

Republican leaders in the House will announce a plan today to raise around $1 billion for transportation annually without raising taxes while starting construction on a number of major projects.

GOP officials declined to release details of their plan before today’s scheduled press conference, but said earlier this week that the plan would not include tax increases.

Instead, House leaders want to take an amount similar to the $625 million in “one time” transportation funding included in former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s final budget and make it a recurring funding source for transportation, according to Republicans in the House of Delegates.

Existing revenue streams, rather than new taxes, would be dedicated to transportation.

Those funds would be combined with an “abuser fees” bill sponsored by Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, and Del. Tom Rust, R-Herndon, which would generate $128 million per year by charging annual fees for people convicted of felonies and misdemeanors behind the wheel, up to $1,000.

Drivers with four demerit points on their license would also be charged $100 each year, plus $75 for every point over four.

The plan may also contain a provision to dedicate taxes on auto insurance premiums to transportation, Republicans said. It would spend roughly the same amount of money as a Senate plan and another put forward by Gov. Tim Kaine.

Kaine’s plan, which would have raised taxes on auto insurance and the sales tax on cars and trucks, was defeated in the House Finance Committee on Monday.

A number of senators, including Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, have warned that paying for transportation improvements from the state’s surplus, projected to be $860 million by the end of the year, would force cuts in education and other key services.

Taking money from the general fund would force roads to fight with other “800-pound gorillas” such as education and public safety when times get tight, Potts said.

But that’s a false choice, according to Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

State revenues seldom go down, he said. Since 1996, revenues have climbed steadily from $12.7 billion to $23.6 billion in 2005. The slowest rate of growth was 1.3 percent, from 2002 to 2003, according to figures from the Virginia Department of Accounts.

“As long as I’ve been here, the revenues have never gone down,” Athey said.

House leaders also have their own version of a “lockbox” for transportation funds: road bonds.

The plan to be released today will call for the state to go to the bond market for large capital projects.

A specific list of what would be paid for out of the box won’t be released until today’s press conference, but Republican sources have said expansion of Interstate 81, a new crossing or expansion of the Hampton Roads bridge-tunnel complex and widening of Interstate 66 are likely candidates, as is an expansion of rail lines from Manassas to the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal.

Putting the money into bonds out of the gate gets projects moving and keeps the money from being diverted to other projects, the general fund or anywhere else.

Once bonds are floated, “you’ve got to pay the bills,” Athey said, declining to comment further on the specific plan.

The plan would also allow VDOT to begin building new projects quickly, rather than waiting for funding to reach the 80 percent mark — the typical starting point.

Kaine has said he supports a new source of dedicated revenue for transportation, but is willing to compromise to get traffic moving again.

In an interview Tuesday, Kaine said bonding out the cost of major projects is something he’d be willing to sign.
“I think the state has some room on the debt side, if we find a reliable revenue source to pay off the debt service,” he said.

But, he wants to see a solid source to pay for it.

“You can’t just borrow without a revenue source that’s earmarked for the project,” he said.
Insurance premiums, said to be a major part of the forthcoming House plan, are one place the money could come from, the governor said.

“I think that could be a good idea,” Kaine said. “That’s a part of [the administration’s] plan, so I’ll look forward to seeing [what the House has to offer].”

The bill is part of a large “carrot and stick” VDOT reform strategy, according to Republican delegates.

“This puts VDOT on ‘probation,’” said one delegate familiar with the plan.

If the agency gets the major projects done on time and on budget, there’s no need to undertake other major changes. But should it fail, some Republicans said it would be time to take a serious look at repealing the Byrd Road Law.

Proposed by Democratic Gov. Harry F. Byrd during the Great Depression, the law gives VDOT responsibility for all county roads in the state except for those in Henrico and Arlington counties.

Bills that shift some transportation planning back to local governments have already been introduced as part of the House package and well on their way to approval.

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Area delegate has two bills to toughen Va. death penalty law; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — One of two efforts by a freshman legislator from Woodstock to make Virginia’s death penalty stronger made its first contested pass through the House of Delegates with flying colors Thursday.

House Bill 1311, authored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, would make killing a witness who is cooperating with police a capital offense.

The bill is a reaction to the killing of Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old gang informant, some 21⁄2 years ago.
Members of MS-13, a violent street gang that has spread across the country, killed Paz to keep her from testifying against fellow gang members.

“She was lured back to the life she had known by her so-called friends so she could be silenced as a witness in their prosecution,” Gilbert told fellow delegates during his speech on the House floor.

Under Virginia law, those accused of Paz’s murder weren’t eligible for the death penalty. That prompted prosecutors to call in federal prosecutors.

“We felt like we didn’t have the tools to have the choice of prosecuting those folks locally,” said Gilbert, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Shenandoah County who now holds a similar, albeit part-time, post in Warren County.

“Not that we would have, but we would have liked to have the option,” he said.

Extending the death penalty in this case is designed to give would-be killers second thoughts.

“It protects the foundation of our justice system,” Gilbert said.

“When you have witnesses who are willing to come forward who are willing to testify to drug dealing and murders, they should be afforded protection,” he said. Victims of violent crime are already covered under death penalty statues in the hopes of giving attackers pause before killing their victims.

As are law enforcement officers, he said.

But “unlike police officers, [witnesses are] not trained, they’re not volunteering for this mission. They’re not armed, they’re not prepared for what they’re about to get into,” he said.

The bill, which was passed on its second reading with no dissent and no debate, has the support of the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association, which seldom speaks to bills regarding the death penalty, Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s other bill dealing with the death penalty, HB 782, would make co-conspirators in a murder, not just the actual “triggerman,” liable for the death penalty.

Delegates agreed unanimously to let the second bill “pass by for the day,” deferring action on the bill’s second of three required readings to be postponed for a day.

The parliamentary maneuver was designed to give both bills the best chance at passing.

“It’s a little complicated to do two death penalty bills on the same day,” Gilbert said.

HB 1311 must pass through the House of Delegates one more time before it is sent to the Senate.

Full Story...

What's the House of Delegates planning?

When it comes to transportation financing, we've got a pretty good idea. Watch this space for late updates.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Judge grants Bell last hearing; B1

Convicted man gets another shot to avoid execution

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Edward Bell has one last chance to avoid execution.

A ruling in federal court earlier this week all but closed the door on Bell’s last substantive appeal, but did grant him a hearing to prove that his lawyers were ineffective during his sentencing.

A Winchester Circuit Court jury convicted Bell in 2001 for the 1999 slaying of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook. The jury later sentenced him to death.

He has since exhausted all of his state appeals and was slated to be executed in January 2005. But a new team of lawyers took up the case and won a stay of execution while the federal courts reviewed his case.

Bell’s case came to prominence outside of Winchester during the 2005 gubernatorial campaign, when Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore aired a television ad in which Timbrook’s widow, Kelly, said she didn’t trust the Democratic nominee, now Gov.
Tim Kaine, to carry out a death sentence.

Some observers said those ads backfired on Kilgore and helped turn what was a 10-point lead in the polls into defeat in November.

The part of that review most likely to give Bell a new trial or at least a new sentencing is now over, and the judge’s ruling went almost completely against Bell.

Judge James P. Jones, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, ruled Tuesday that Bell’s claims of mental retardation — which would make him ineligible for the death penalty — were un-founded in Virginia law.

Bell’s lawyers didn’t raise the issue during trial, which makes it impossible for federal courts to look at the possibility, Jones wrote.

“However, even were I to excuse the procedural defaults … the evidence is insufficient to entitle Bell to relief or even to a hearing in this court,” Jones wrote.

Bell may have posted a retarded score on one IQ test, the judge wrote, but it’s not one of the tests used by the commonwealth to determine mental capacity.

Jones parted company with the Virginia Supreme Court, however, on issues of lawyer effectiveness. The commonwealth’s highest court found that there was mitigating evidence introduced and that his lawyers did enough to prove to the jury that Bell wasn’t a danger if he was released from prison.

But the federal court pointed to a laundry list of potential evidence that wasn’t introduced, such as testimony about Bell’s relationship with his children, and wants to hear more.

“Despite all of this potential mitigation evidence, the mitigation case put forth by Bell’s trial counsel consisted of only two witnesses, Bell’s sister and father, who testified collectively for less than seven pages of transcript,” Jones wrote.

“Trial counsel did not ask Bell’s sister or father a single question about Bell’s background, his relationships with his family, his children or any other potentially mitigating factors,” he wrote.

The closing argument by both sides serves to prove the point, according to the judge.

“The prosecutor noted that Bell had not ‘produced one shred of evidence of mitigation’ … Moreover, defense counsel stated in closing argument that ‘[t]he testimony that was offered was very graphic about a violent man. We didn’t rebut it. Not try to defend it, refute it. We didn’t,’” Jones wrote.

That’s enough to make Jones hold his final judgment on the issue until he’s seen evidence from both sides on the matter.
If Bell wins, Jones may order a new sentencing hearing with more mitigating evidence to be introduced. If the state comes out on top, it will all but put an end to Bell’s chances to avoid the death chamber.

Jones also rejected claims that the Vienna Convention, a treaty that deals with how countries handle the arrest of foreign nationals inside their borders, was violated.

Bell’s attorneys said the Jamaican consulate in Washington should have been notified earlier when Bell was arrested.

No date for the hearing had been set as of Wednesday.

Neither side had much to say after the ruling.

“We can’t comment on ongoing litigation,” said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

As for Bell’s team of lawyers, “the focus is on the next hearing,” said Greg McCarthy, a spokesman for the law firm handling the case.

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Gilbert’s plan for I-81 tabled in committee: A1

Delegate’s bill would have kept interstate from becoming truck tollway

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — A Shenandoah Valley delegate’s effort to stop plans to turn Interstate 81 into a massive truck tollway came up short in committee Wednesday.

Members of the House Rules Committee voted 8-7 to table House Joint Resolution 143, offered by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

The legislation would have asked the Virginia Department of Transportation to call off its negotiations with STAR Solutions regarding an offer from the consortium to build a multilane expansion of the highway financed through tolls.

“It’s technically still alive, but it’s effectively dead,” said a frustrated Gilbert, leaving the House of Delegates chamber on Wednesday.

“I wanted to have this debate on the floor, and not in the Rules Committee,” he said.

HJ 143 had been picking up support in recent days, with a bipartisan group of legislators from Bristol to Winchester signing on as co-patrons.

Groups ranging from preservationists to truckers also expressed their support for the bill, which had become part of a package of legislation that would have put more troopers on the highway as well.

But Del. Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said during the hearing that the legislation was “fatally flawed.”

VDOT officials argued that it would interfere too much with the public-private partnership laws that allow businesses to submit unsolicited proposals to the government.

The vote points to the fact that not everyone in the House understands the situation, Gilbert said.

“You have a lot of folks on [the] Rules [Committee] that have a lot of competing interests from different parts of the state who don’t necessarily understand the special needs we have in the western half of the state,” he said. “Their views are vastly different from ours, and their needs are vastly different from ours.”

Getting close to the House floor debate isn’t much consolation.

“Close only counts in horseshoes,” he said. But “we have what appears to be a very important ally in this, the Speaker of the House [Del. Bill Howell, R-Fredericksburg].”

Still, Gilbert’s efforts won high praise from the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

“Delegates Gilbert and [Steve] Landes, [R-Weyers Cave,] and the Valley’s delegation have exhibited tremendous leadership on this issue which is important to all of us along the I-81 corridor,” Howard Kittell, the foundation’s executive director, says in a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon.

Landes, the chairman of the GOP caucus, was one of several co-patrons of the measure and argued in favor of stopping negotiations during the committee hearing.

The highway cuts through many of the Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley, and any major expansion of I-81 would have a dramatic impact on the area’s historic resources, he says.

“We are grateful for the hard work of our delegation to find balanced, common sense solutions to the future of I-81,” Kittell says.

Interstate 81 wasn’t the only transportation issue before legislators on Wednesday.

The Senate Finance Committee took testimony on bills related to that chamber’s plan to raise taxes and tap the state’s projected $860 million surplus to spend about $1 billion more a year on transportation.

Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, the committee’s chairman, didn’t call for a vote on the proposals, which include a hike in the state’s sales tax on cars from 3 percent to 5 percent.

Instead, Chichester an-nounced, the committee is going to take in Wednesday’s testimony and possibly make changes to the proposals before the Senate.

Back in the House of Delegates, the wait for a GOP transportation revenue package continues, much to the consternation of Democrats.

Democratic leaders in the House recently wrote to Speaker Howell, asking him to set up a bipartisan transportation panel to look at the situation.

Republicans have promised to complete their plan by announcing new transportation revenue before Wednesday’s crossover day, when legislation approved by the House or Senate is taken up by the other chamber.

Full Story...

Kaine: Transportation remains a priority: A1

Governor addresses area chamber of commerce officials in Richmond

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — He’s willing to compromise, but Gov. Tim Kaine said Tuesday that he’s not going to back off transportation without a deal.

Speaking to members of the Winchester-Frederick County Chamber of Commerce during their annual trip to Capitol Square,

Kaine said he’s willing to hear what everyone has to say on transportation, but wants something done this

The day after a House of Delegates committee killed the cornerstone of his plan to raise more money for roads and rail, Kaine said he’s worried about the level of taxation in the state as well.

Concerns about taxation are valid, he said, even as he’s proposed about $1 billion in new taxes annually over the next four years to pay for roads.

“There’s no prize for being the lowest,” he said, noting that services like education and transportation have to be kept in good shape.

But “we always need to be concerned about [taxes],” Kaine said. Virginia’s taxes need to be “low, fair and business friendly.”

Doing nothing has a serious cost in the long term, he said. By 2015, the state will be out of road construction funds and will be losing all of its federal construction funds.

We’ll be suckers,” he said. “We’ll be paying at the pump a federal tax for federal transportation projects,” but won’t be getting government dollars back.

Both Kaine and the Senate have introduced tax plans to raise more money, and the GOP majority in the House of Delegates is preparing to roll out a funding plan this week.

House leaders have said raising taxes isn’t an option with the state’s balance sheet so far in the black.

Money is the stumbling block, Kaine said, recalling an old church sermon.

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” he joked.

Kaine said he’s willing to compromise, but only so far.

“You can’t just use a surplus to build a road,” he said. Funding has to be consistent over the long term.

But speaking afterward, Kaine said he’d consider plans that would use existing taxes to fund bonds to pay for major projects, provided they didn’t hurt the state’s bond rating.

Kaine’s independent opponent in the November gubernatorial election also laid out his vision for transportation to the chamber.

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, told the group that legislators have to do something, but funding transit out of the general fund is not an option.

“To try to do that, you’d be constantly competing with those three other 800-pound gorillas,” education, health care and public safety, he said.

“You can’t do it unless you’re going to seriously impede those [core] services,” Potts said.

He again railed against the “flat earth crowd” in the House of Delegates who oppose new taxes.

But Potts’ views didn’t go unchallenged.

Jim Stutzman, the owner of Jim Stutzman Chevrolet in Winchester, had some strong words for Potts when the floor was opened for questions.

Transportation “has been an issue for the past 15 years,” during which the General Assembly had no trouble raiding road funds for the general fund.

But now that the state has more than $1 billion either in or on the way to the bank in the form of surplus, it’s unthinkable to turn the tables, Stutzman said.

And new revenue will be a very tempting prize for legislators in the future.

“I have yet to hear about the plan that’s in place to utilize this billion,” Stutzman said. “I see it as a billion dollars that’s going to be out there for the pickings.”

Potts countered by saying he’d support a constitutional amendment to create a transportation “lockbox,” but pointed to his own plan for roads as a solution to concerns about fairness.

Potts has introduced a plan that would raise the sales tax 1 percentage point to 6 percent and use the money for transportation.

“Thus it hits everybody in an equal fashion,” Potts said. It’s a good deal for retailers, he added, pointing to his wife’s shopping habits.

“Every half hour she’s locked up in traffic going to Tyson’s Corner on Route 7 is another hundred bucks that Nordstrom or Niemann Marcus won’t get,” he joked.

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Crossover craziness

Crossover Day is less than a week away, and the insanity is palpable here in the General Assembly Building. Committees are working hard and fast to get the 2,700 or so pieces of legislation disposed of in their own house before sending it off across the lobby of the Patrick Henry Building for more scrutiny.

Meanwhile, there's chatter in every corner about transportation. Legislators, lobbyists and staffers are abuzz about when the House revenue plan will come forward and what it will contain. And the words "special session" are flying around in significant bailiwicks.

So far today, part of Gov. Tim Kaine's transportation proposal has gone down in flames, and a ghost of campaign death penalty ads past is making news. And they're not even fixing lunch yet down at Chickens.

Updates as fast as humanly possible to follow...

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Truckers join push for new I-81 plan; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Apparently truckers don’t like it either.

A valley-wide initiative to put a quick end to an effort to change Interstate 81 into a massive tollway picked up the backing of a major state industry group Friday.

The Virginia Trucking Association and American Trucking Association have thrown their support behind an effort begun by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, which would put a halt to negotiations between STAR Solutions and the Virginia Department of Transportation to convert I-81 into a proposed $13 billion toll road.

Under the proposal from STAR Solutions, the contracting consortium seeking to build the highway improvements, it would cost trucks around $125 to make the trip from West Virginia to Tennessee, according to the groups.

“These legislators are trying to apply common sense to a process that has gone on too long and has done nothing to actually improve I-81,” says Dale Bennett, executive director of the Virginia Trucking Association, in a statement issued to media.

Gilbert, Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, and other backers “understand the needs of I-81, the citizens understand the needs of I-81, and the businesses along I-81 understand the needs — and they aren’t truck lanes with tolls,” he says.

Gilbert’s resolution would shepherd VDOT toward adding a third lane in both directions to the highway, using a $100 million-plus federal set-aside to help pay for it. The legislative package also includes placing more state troopers on the highway.

Big rig drivers would welcome more troopers on the 323 miles of highway from Bristol to Winchester, according to Bennett.

“Truckers are just as concerned about interstate safety as a motorist in a car,” said Bennett. “We support any effort to crack down on unsafe drivers, whether they are in a passenger vehicle or in the cab of a truck.”

Other transportation initiatives in the House of Delegates are drawing political fire.
House Speaker Bill Howell, R- R-Fredericksburg, and Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, announced more of the House GOP caucus’ transportation plan on Thursday.

But the package of bills, which focuses on changes to the Virginia Department of Transportation and local growth planning, is missing a key element, according to some Democrats and transportation interest groups — funding.

“Let’s be clear, House Republicans deserve credit and the package contains proposals of merit that deserve consideration and enactment,” the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance says in a position statement issued Friday.

But there’s no substitute for new money, according to the group.

“Let’s also be clear that these and other substantive VDOT reforms will not come close to substituting for the substantive, sustained new funding required to address an annual statewide transportation funding shortfall conservatively estimated at $2 billion,” the group says.

The leader of the state Democratic Party accused the GOP of playing politics with transportation.

“We don’t have a structural problem; we’ve got a funding problem,” said Richard Cranwell, the party’s chairman.

“You can’t run a car without gasoline, and you can’t build a transportation system to meet the needs of the 21st century without having a 21st century pocketbook,” he said.

Gov. Tim Kaine and a bipartisan group of senators have announced transportation plans that would generate on average of about $1 billion per year over the next four years for transportation.

Both use higher taxes and fees, as well as some money from the general fund, to pay the bills.

Writing a “blank check” to VDOT won’t fix the problem, Athey said. Instead, the House of Delegates wants to change the way the agency spends money — including outsourcing things such as interstate maintenance — before it talks about revenue.

House leaders have also said that there’s very little room for a tax hike in a budget that’s running some $860 million in the black this year alone.

But the partisan sniping in the General Assembly is a direct contrast to the rhetoric coming out of the executive branch.

Kaine, a Democrat, and Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling met this week and issued a joint statement pledging to work together to bridge their differences over where new transportation funding should come from.

House leaders are expected to tackle the money side of the equation next week.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

‘No reason to panic’ for state GOP; A1

Party leaders respond to calls for new blood

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — They lost the race for the Executive Mansion and nearly lost the race for attorney general. They’ve lost some seats in the House of Delegates and suffered a resounding defeat in a special Senate election just this week.

But political scientists, pundits and elected officials all say it’s way too early to be writing the obituary of the Virginia Republican Party or its leadership.

Tuesday’s 2-to-1 loss of Loudoun County Supervisor Mick Staton to Democrat Mark Herring in the formerly Republican 33rd Senate District was tough for the GOP faithful.

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chad Dotson, who runs the influential Commonwealth Conservative blog, says the 33rd District race isn’t a good indicator of where the party stands as a whole.

“However, over the last couple of years, it has become clear that the Virginia GOP is somewhat adrift, and there are some questions we need to ask ourselves,” he wrote earlier this week.

Others observers have called for changes in party leadership, or for the party to swing toward the center or out to the right.
Speaking the morning after the special election, GOP Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin thanked the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s Republican women for standing by her.

“Whenever we’ve had a low moment, I can count on that telephone of mine to ring, and it’s one of you ladies saying, ‘You’re doing a great job!’ even when I’m feeling like I’m not doing such a good job,” the Winchester resident said. “You all remind me of why I’m doing this.”

Those calling for new blood need to look at the bigger picture, according to the state’s highest-ranking Republican.

“What I would say to those folks is ‘There’s no reason to panic,’” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, in an interview with the Daily.

“There’s no reason to change leadership at the top of the party,” he said. “Kate Griffin has done a great job as chair … she’s a great spokesperson for the Republican Party of Virginia.”

“Wholesale changes” in the party would be too much, he added.

“I think we’ve actually performed fairly well in most parts of the state,” Bolling said. “I think we’ve got some challenges in Northern Virginia. I think that’s really what our focus has to be as we look to the future.”

“I knew [Tuesday’s special election] would be a tough race, but I thought our candidate would do better than he did,” he said.
Herring is a former Loudoun County supervisor who lost a bid to unseat Sen. H. Russell Potts, R-Winchester, in the 27th District in 2003.

There’s no indication at all that Virginians are headed from red to blue, said Ken Stroupe, chief of staff at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

But “what it tells you is that you’ve got to have the right kind of Republican to win in Northern Virginia,” he said.

That hasn’t been lost on Bolling.

“The one thing that’s clear to me is that we’ve got some work to do in Northern Virginia,” Bolling said.

Losing a Lynchburg-area House of Delegates seat also stung, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected, he said.

“We knew that would be a tough seat to hold,” Bolling said. “That’s why Gov. [Tim] Kaine appointed [Del. Preston Bryant to be Secretary of Natural Resources].”

The tale of the tape in Lynchburg bears out Bolling’s observation — the Democratic establishment came out with wallets blazing for now-Del. Shannon Valentine, D-Lynchburg.

The House Democratic Caucus donated $100,000, while Kaine’s inaugural committee chipped in another $37,500. Former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s One Virginia PAC kicked in $10,000.

The air war was even more one-sided. Valentine spent $164,000 on broadcast advertising in one of the state’s larger media markets, while Harrington spent only $49,000.

Closer to home, the blowout in the 33rd Senate District just goes to prove that the GOP has to rethink Loudoun County strategy — and that “all politics is local,” said Craig Brians, a political scientist at Virginia Tech.

“I wouldn’t draw any statewide conclusions from this,” he said. “People are super-frustrated with transportation issues in particular, and they’re willing to pay more not to have to sit so long in traffic.”

Over at Staton’s headquarters, staffers spent Thursday dealing with the personal side of coming up short at the ballot box — cleaning out the office.

But Kellie DeRouen, Staton’s campaign manager, said it’s not the party’s fault that Staton isn’t in the Senate this morning.

“The Republican Party [of Virginia] helped us. That’s the bottom line,” she said. “They called us on a regular basis and asked us what we needed.”

Even with boxes of stuff stacked up to be moved out, DeRouen said she wouldn’t change the way they ran the brief race.

“I just don’t think it was our time,” she said.

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Gilbert’s resolution on interstate upgrade picks up supporters; B5

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WOODSTOCK — A proposal from one local legislator to put the brakes on plans to expand Interstate 81 to a super-tollway picked up some major bipartisan support on Thursday.

Republican and Democratic legislators from the length of the Shenandoah Valley came out in support of legislation by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, that would stop Virginia Department of Transportation negotiations with STAR Solutions to expand the highway by multiple lanes and pay for the work via tolls.

VDOT officials have said their environmental impact review, not the STAR Solutions proposal, would dictate what the new and improved I-81 looks like.

Speaking at a press conference in Richmond, Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, and five other delegates, along with Sen. John Edwards, D-Roa-noke, said they’d support Gilbert’s legislation and other efforts to make I-81 safer.

Gilbert’s resolution, HJ 143, calls for adding one lane in each direction to the highway.

While the final wording isn’t set in stone, the valley delegation agrees with its sentiment.

Everyone who has signed on to the bill so far agrees that the road needs work in its most congested sections first, and that “we don’t want this to be a toll road,” Gilbert said after the press conference.

“Shenandoah County, as far as I know, has the longest stretch of I-81” in Virginia, he said. The highway runs down the spine of the county for about 35 miles.

“We literally have the most to lose if this goes through like they’re talking about,” he said.

The delegate and his staff are “working with folks back home to tinker with the language to strengthen the language in some respects,” he said.

At the same time, “I’ve talked to the folks on the other side,” he said. No one backing his resolution has a problem with the contractors consortium represented by STAR Solutions doing the work on the highway.

It’s just the kind of work that’s being talked about that causes the problem, Gilbert said.

“Calling for a halt to all negotiations is something that we might be able to pull back from” if STAR Solutions is “able to change what they’re doing.”

STAR has already invested significant amounts of money in the project, he said, and the delegation doesn’t want it to be forced out of the project.

“Whoever does the work is secondary” to the kind of work being done, he said.

Another new initiative with support from the group is from Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst, which would put 10 more state troopers on the highway via a $1.9 million amendment to the 2006-08 biennial budget proposed by former Gov. Mark R. Warner.

“An important step toward enhanced safety on I-81 is addressing the runaway speeds that intimidate drivers and endanger lives,” he says in a statement issued after the press conference. “Additional troopers will provide the necessary staffing to allow for more patrols and a safer highway.”

Gilbert’s resolution has been referred to the House Committee on Rules. No hearings on the bill had been scheduled as of late Thursday.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

New delegate handed first legislative defeat; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WOODSTOCK — Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, has been in office for 23 days and already he’s taken some big legislative swings.

He’s got hits, and he’s got misses.

The freshman delegate was handed his first legislative defeat when a bill that tackled what is normally a noncontroversial subject — stronger rules against child pornography — died in committee.

“The first one that got killed was one that clarified” definitions of child pornography, Gilbert said.

When it comes to laws against the production of child pornography, “if it looks like child porn, it is child porn” as far as the law is concerned.

“The depiction is intended for it to look like a child, under the current law, we presume that the child is under 18,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert wanted to extend that same provision to the state’s laws against the possession of child porn, but hit resistance at the committee level.

“There was some concern that someone taking [a] picture of their 18-year-old or 19-year-old girlfriend” would be prosecuted for child pornography, when everyone involved were adults and the photos or videos weren’t for distribution.

Gilbert’s most controversial bill to date also ran out of gas in committee.

House Bill 1572 would have prohibited colleges and universities from creating rules dealing with concealed carry permits for firearms.

Critics, including some Virginia colleges, said the bill would have needlessly brought guns into the college classroom.
That wasn’t the intention, according to Gilbert.

Rather, the bill was written for “the 22-year-old female graduate student who may have been the victim of a violent sexual crime,” he said.

Someone in that situation may well have applied for and received a concealed carry permit, he said, and “public colleges and their campus aren’t secure facilities.”

“All the sudden you have a university telling her she has to leave her gun at home,” he said. At places like Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, that might have tragic results.

Richmond is “the fifth most dangerous city in America” according to recent federal statistics, Gilbert said, and “she has to walk all the way to her car.”

“The bill was intended to be a clarification of state law,” he said. “That’s the thing … there’s a discrepancy. No one is really sure where the law is on that.”

Some of Gilbert’s other significant bills have plenty of momentum behind them.

House Bill 1311 would make anyone who kills a witness cooperating with police and prosecutors eligible for the death penalty.

Gilbert said the bill comes from his experience with the Brenda Paz murder. Paz, a gang informant, was killed in Shenandoah County 21⁄2 years ago to keep her from testifying against other gang members.

State law makes killing police a capital crime to protect officers, Gilbert said. He hopes the bill will give someone second thoughts before they try to silence a witness.

“If we don’t protect them, then we’re really dropping the ball,” he said.

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Susan Allen comes to the valley to campaign on husband’s behalf; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — Election Day is still more than nine months away, but two of Virginia’s candidates for U.S. Senate are off and running.

Incumbent Sen. George Allen, a Republican and former governor who is seeking a second six-year term, sent some firepower to the Northern Shenandoah Valley on Wednesday.

His wife, former Virginia first lady Susan Allen, was at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley on Wednesday, rallying the Republican faithful for the contest.

“Susan Allen has made the priorities in her life so clear,” said state party Chairwoman Kate Obenshain Griffin, introducing Mrs. Allen to members of the Winchester Frederick Clarke Republican Women.

That priority has been “providing a warm loving home for her husband so he can have peace when he gets there after being in this crazy world of politics that we’re in that knows no bounds, and creating that same kind of life for her three precious children,” Griffin said.

The GOP leaders also hinted at a possible future role for Mrs. Allen, alluding to her husband’s possible presidential run in 2008.

She is “not only the finest first lady that Virginia has ever had, but [also] the finest first lady our country will ever have,” Griffin said.

Mrs. Allen exhorted the crowd to tell friends and family about her husband, because the 2006 race could be a tough one.

“We need that same momentum we had in ’91, ’93 and 2000,” she said. “We have one opponent already. Who knows how many more will come down the pike?”

Harris Miller, a Northern Virginia businessman, has an-nounced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination.

A Jan. 18 Rasmussen Reports poll found the incumbent leading Miller 57 percent to 37 percent.

Allen has been working hard for some time to make a number of the initiatives in President Bush’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night a reality, Mrs. Allen said.

A big part of that is keeping the national economy running well, she said.

“One way to do that … is to make sure that we remember as a party that we hold financial responsibility as one of the number one issues that Republicans unite behind and agree on,” she said.

Her husband also has a good track record on fiscal issues, Mrs. Allen said.

“He’s a frugal man at heart, and he takes your tax dollars seriously and treats them as his own,” she said.

Virginia would be well-served, she said, to keep Allen in office to be sure that Washington keeps an eye to the East, as well.

“India and China are two very large countries that we need to keep an eye on,” Mrs. Allen said. Allen strongly supports initiatives to keep the U.S. competitive on the world stage.

“We have got to make sure that we have the brain power to remain the strongest force in the world,” she said. “We are getting passed by by these countries that are producing engineers by the gazillions.”

Leadership in science and technology are key to continued U.S. dominance, Mrs. Allen said. Should China and India become the innovation leaders of the world, the results for the nation could be serious.

“[India and China’s] government policies are not the one we want leading our world,” she said.

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Bill sets ‘sunset’ terms on taxes; B1

Measure may affect Va. bond rating, some say

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

A bill that cleared the House of Delegates on Monday and is on its way through the Senate could have serious ramifications for the state’s “AAA” bond rating, according to one of the state’s financial advisers.

But the measure’s supporters say such concerns are unwarranted and the bill is good fiscal policy.

House Bill 1052 requires that any new taxes or tax in-creases ap-proved by the General As-sembly in-clude “sunset” provisions, meaning they would expire at a certain date to be set by legislators unless they’re renewed.

Patroned by Del. Jack Reid, R-Henrico, and nine others, the bill passed the House of Delegates on Monday on a 64-33 vote and was sent to the Senate.

But writing such provisions into law could have some dire consequences for the commonwealth’s credit rating, according to Steven Kantor, senior vice president with First Southwest Company.

The financial firm advises the state’s Treasury Board, and investors are likely to take notice if Virginia “sunsets” new taxes, he said in a letter to Virginia Treasurer Braxton Powell.

“The provisions of HB 1052 raise questions regarding the stability of the source of the Commonwealth’s and its political subdivision’s general fund revenues,” Kantor says.

“The automatic sunset of future taxes creates uncertainty as to the commitment of the Commonwealth to maintain a reliable and predictable source of income,” he wrote. “The Commonwealth’s commitment to implement taxes was questioned by Moody’s Investor Service during the period that Moody’s placed the Commonwealth on its Credit Watch for possible downgrades.”

Loss of the state’s bond rating — “AAA” for most state bonds, the highest given by Moody’s — was one of the reasons given for the 2004 budget deal that raised taxes by $1.5 billion per year.

The state ended that fiscal year with a surplus and is projected to end fiscal 2006 with $860 million left in the bank.

“We believe that implementing the sunset provision on new taxes as described in HB 1052 will cause concern from all three rating agencies and will send a negative message to the investor community,” Kantor wrote.

“They read that on the floor of the House during the floor of the debate,” Reid said.

“I can understand how someone who’s not familiar with the terms ‘sunset’ or ‘re-enactment’ might come to that conclusion,” he said.

The bill seeks to keep Virginia from repeating its experience with the Business, Professional and Occupational License tax. That levy was raised to pay for the War of 1812.

“We still have it with us,” he said.

But the law won’t have state taxes disappearing left and right, said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

“It puts into the system an automatic review of tax policy,” he said. “It’s sound public policy when you institute a tax to review it every so often.

And there will likely be some long sunsets if it passes.

If the state needs to float a 25-year bond, it could raise taxes and sunset the taxes to pay for it in 25 years, said Reid.

“There’s nothing that says it has to be three years or five years,” he said. “It can be tailored by the legislative body to meet the revenue stream.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

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