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, March 06, 2006

Competing roads plans scrutinized; A1

Conferees have until Tuesday to finish negotiating

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Virginia’s fight over transportation spent its first full day behind closed doors on Friday.

Negotiators from the House and Senate have begun their work reconciling the two competing visions of the state’s budget, both of which contain plans to help the state’s ailing transpor-tation system.

Both sides made a brief ap-pearance with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine — who has a transportation plan of his own — on Thursday evening. But the real work will be done, delegates and senators said, behind closed doors, on phone calls and in unscheduled meetings.

Conferees have until Tuesday — if they’re to remain on schedule to adjourn by March 11 — to complete their negotiations.

Whether or not that will happen is an open question. The last time legislators came together to craft a two-year budget plan, the session went into overtime with threats of a government shutdown and a special session.

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of opinions to be had.

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, issued a rare public statement on Friday, supporting the Senate’s vision of higher taxes in exchange for about $1 billion in new transportation spending each year.

“Unless we address these problems immediately, we face a transportation crisis of extreme proportions,” Potts says in the statement.

Local governments would gain more autonomy under the Senate’s plan, he said, in the form of $422 million in local transit funding raised via a tax on sellers of real estate, while the House of Delegates plan contains no new local revenue, Potts says.

House leaders have said in the past that while their plan doesn’t raise taxes for local governments, it does make it easier for them to accept proffers from developers and use the money for local transportation projects.

It also expands a “cost sharing” program in which local governments can get state money to help them build their own projects, rather than waiting on the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Elsewhere in Capitol Square, others were hoping to focus the debate on the economy’s bottom line.

The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a moderate-to-conservative, Virginia-centric think tank, released the results of economic modeling done in conjunction with Suffolk University in Massachusetts on each of the three competing transit plans at a press conference.

The results were surprising, according to Michael W. Thompson, the institute’s president and chairman.

Under the plan proposed by Kaine, the government would see $2.7 billion in new revenue over four years and the private sector would pick up almost 6,900 new jobs.

Under the Senate plan, the government would see an extra $4.5 billion in revenue with about 1,000 fewer jobs created.

The “no tax hike” plan from delegates would only raise $729 million, due in large part to the fact that it spends existing revenue. But it would also create more than 8,000 new jobs.

“Clearly the difference between the proposals … [is that the House plan’s] private sector employment is significantly more than the other two,” Thompson said. “Because you’re not raising taxes, you’re growing the private sector.”

There are limits to modeling, though.

“We all know that it is not how much money is spent, but where and how it is spent that is important,” he said.

Thompson was adamant that the think tank wasn’t taking sides — just crunching numbers. All three can find something in the document to hang their hats on.

“All three of these plans are better than if you did nothing,” he said.

The model that generated the numbers will be made available to legislators earlier next week, Thompson said, in hopes of helping them find the best solution for the state’s economy.