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

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.