GOP senators make odd couple; A1
By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)
They’re both members of the Virginia Senate. They’re in the same party. They share a district boundary. That’s about all they share.
Sens. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, represent the Shenandoah Valley from Rockingham County north to the West Virginia line.
But the two men are worlds apart on a number of major issues — taxes, guns, gubernatorial powers, smoking in public and others — and their voting records during the first General Assembly session of the year bear that out.
Perhaps the best illustration of the split between the two neighbors is seen in Potts’ decision to run for governor in 2005. Not long after he announced his candidacy, the state Republican Party reacted strongly.
The Winchester senator represented “the Democrat establishment’s high-tax, pro-abortion liberal views,” Obenshain’s sister, state party Chairwoman Kate Obenshain Griffin, said after Potts announced he was running.
With the heat of the election over, Potts said differences of opinion are just that, matters of opinion.
“It doesn’t mean that he’s right and I’m wrong,” Potts said, before adding that most of the Senate — and thus most of Virginia — sided with him more often than Obenshain.
One case in point was Senate Bill 708, the tax hike for transportation that cleared the upper house by a 34-6 margin but died in the House of Delegates.
Obenshain said he had no problem with being in the minority on the vote.
“We’re in a period right now in which the economic strength of the commonwealth is at unprecedented levels,” Obenshain said.
Taxes were raised by $1.5 billion in 2004, and now the state is raking in record surpluses.
“Taking all those other factors into consideration, it’s just flat wrong to ask taxpayers to pony up,” he said.
Arguments that the tax increases proposed by the Senate are “just a little bit more” than current levels are specious, Obenshain said.
“Just a little bit more means we’re working to pay taxes another day, two days, three days a year,” he said. “I, for one, would value that time to spend with my family.”
But Virginia’s transportation problems cannot be solved by anything other than new, reliable funding, argued Potts. Traffic backups in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia are quickly becoming the stuff of legends.
“I think it’s obvious why I voted for” the Senate transportation package, he said. “The time spent with your family is impacted by the time spent in traffic jams on the highway.”
“The Northern Virginia area is now the third most congested metropolitan area in the country,” he said. “The biggest tax you pay is time lost with your family. If that isn’t a tax, I don’t know what is.”
Another place where the two parted company was on Senate Bill 648, the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act, a bill that would have clamped down on smoking in public places.
It passed the Senate 21-18, but died in the House of Delegates.
Restaurants, offices and public areas of apartment buildings would have been off limits to cigarettes. Violators could be fined by police.
It was an easy vote, Potts said.
“Smoking kills people,” he said. “Personal freedom is one thing, blowing smoke in the face of your wife, girlfriend or dinner partner is another. Personal freedom ends when you’re doing harm to someone else.”
That’s not contested, Obenshain said.
But “the bill went much farther than that. The bill would prevent me from injuring myself,” he said. Even a one-person business with no walk-in customers would have been “no smoking” by force under this bill.
“I believe in the tremendous power of the free market,” he said. “If we don’t like the fact that people are smoking in there, we’ve got the personal freedom to turn around and walk right back out.”
“Where are we going to stop?” he asked. “Are we going to pass a bill against running with scissors?”
Potts and Obenshain also parted company on a bill by Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, that would extend the right to get proffers from developers to more local governments.
It passed 34-4 in the Senate, and is currently on Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s desk.
“A developer and a builder has to assume responsibility for infrastructure … the necessity for new schools, social workers, infrastructure requirements,” Potts said.
When developers put up a crop of new houses, the community has to eat the infrastructure costs, he said. It’s only fair to make sure development pays for itself.
Obenshain said the bill — HB 1506 — was one area where he came close to Potts’ position, but made a statement with his vote against it in what he knew was going to be a big win.
“My vote didn’t mean a lot on this bill. This bill rolled, and I knew it was going to roll,” he said. “Virginia has a crying need for adopting statewide land-use laws that change the patchwork approach that we have adopted over the last 15 years.”
The Shenandoah Valley is victim of the “domino effect” from counties in Northern Virginia that have decided that they need to clamp down on residential development, Obenshain said.
The slow creep of Northern Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley is one result of that patchwork, he said. A statewide set of rules for development would go a long way to slow it.
Both men, along with the other 138 members of the General Assembly, are due back in Richmond on Monday for a special session to deal with the budget and transportation issues.