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, March 01, 2006

Bill gives legislators transportation appointment powers; B3

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

It’s not as sexy as taxes and construction, but a major transportation policy change has cleared the General Assembly and is headed to the governor’s desk.

If signed by Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, Senate Bill 304, introduced by state Sen. Martin E. Williams, R-Newport News, will change the balance of power in Virginia’s transportation system.

The bill lets the General Assembly, not the governor, appoint a majority of members to the Commonwealth Transportation Board. That board allocates transportation funding, chooses road routes and sets the transportation priorities for the state as a whole.

SB 304 cleared the Senate once, but was amended in the House of Delegates. That version of the bill cleared the Senate on Tuesday on a 20-20 tie.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling broke the tie and sent the bill on to Kaine’s desk, but said later that he’s not a big fan of the underlying issue.

“Had it been a vote on the merits of the bill as a whole, I’m not sure that I would have voted for it,” he said. But since the vote was just on clarifying amendments from the House, there was no need to send it to a conference committee.

Kaine said during the campaign that a governor might have to give up some power, particularly on appointments to the board, in order to win a constitutional amendment allowing for two terms. Currently, governors must sit out an election before they can seek a second term.

But the Kaine administration wants to a be a part of the conversation before the lines of institutional power are redrawn.

“There have been several attempts by some in this legislature to take away executive power without any discussion about Virginia’s outdated, inefficient, last-in-the-nation, single-term limit on its governors,” said Kevin Hall, Kaine’s press secretary. “We might be more receptive to proposals such as this if it was, in fact, a more meaningful dialogue.”

At present, the governor appoints all 17 members of the board and has the power to recall them at will.

Three seats are automatically filled by gubernatorial appointees — the secretary of transportation, the commonwealth transportation commissioner and the director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Of the remaining 14, nine are appointed from Virginia Department of Transportation construction districts. Three are appointed at-large from urban areas, two at-large from rural areas.

But under the bill given final approval by the Senate on Tuesday, that would change. Legislators, not the governor, would appoint the representatives of the construction districts.

Shenandoah University President James A. Davis currently represents the Northern Shenandoah Valley and the rest of the Staunton District on the board. He was appointed by Gov. Mark R. Warner in 2004.

A major realignment of this kind is highly unlikely — and smacks of politics, he said.

“I would be very shocked if the governor would approve that,” said Davis. Appointment of the 17-member board has been the governor’s prerogative for some time, and taking it away is a big step.

If he were to be tapped for another four-year term on the board, Davis said it wouldn’t matter who did the appointing — he’d still do his job the same way.

“It would just be an appointment for a different body,” he said. “Whether they would appoint me or not, I have no idea.”

“I look at it as a slap at the governor,” he said. But then again, “that’s for them to decide. I think you’ll still have good people serving in those positions, no matter who appoints them.”