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

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Virginia Senate won't budge, members say

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Members of the Virginia Senate aren’t ready to give ground when it comes to the ongoing deadlock over the state budget and transportation.

The two GOP-led houses remain at odds over the state budget and new taxes for transportation. Senators want about $1 billion in new funding each year for taxes, while delegates support tapping the state’s multibillion surplus to fund roads.

House leaders have offered a compromise to break the stalemate — setting aside $1 billion in the current budget, then coming back for a special session to figure out how to spend it and pay for it.

That’s what was done in 1986, the last time the state tackled the problem, according to House leaders.

But Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, said he couldn’t support the offer.

“Gov. [Gerald] Baliles had a completely different set of circumstances,” he said, including a General Assembly that would approve higher taxes. “I can’t blame the current governor or chairman of Senate finance for not wanting to go that direction.”

Other senators took to the microphone Wednesday to sound their support for higher taxes.

Speaking during a break in the action at Wednesday’s veto override session, state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, invoked conservative icons like President Reagan and U.S. Sen. George F. Allen in calling for tax hikes.

“On the national scene, one of our greatest presidents was Ronald Reagan. And he said, ‘Tear down that wall!’ and he backed it up with money, M-O-N-E-Y,” Potts said.

The reason that Berlin Wall fell is because Reagan invested more money in the nation’s defense system than any president in history, Potts said.

“The Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled because he invested,” he said.

In Virginia, Allen’s legislation to end parole while he served as governor is another prime example of investment for priorities, Potts added.

“It’s cost us a lot of money,” he said. “How many prisons have we built?”

But it came with a 21 percent reduction in crime, Potts said, which made it worth it.

“What we’re talking about here may be the ‘tax’ word, but the real word is ‘investment,’” he said.

No one should blame the Senate for this year’s fight over roads, he said.

But Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said some members need to take a closer look at their state history.

Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr., of Winchester, an oft-invoked figure in this year’s debate, did create the modern Virginia road system.

But he also had the wisdom to know there was only so much government could do at once, Obenshain said.

“Gov. Byrd came and realized that we can do one thing at a time,” he said. “Where are we going? Two years ago we were debating a tax increase of significant magnitude, to address the pressing need of transportation.”

“What we have to do is figure out better ways to do this governing, make better decisions about prioritization,” he said.

But the $1.5 billion tax increase of 2004 wasn’t that big a deal, Saslaw countered.

“To say we significantly raised taxes two years ago just doesn’t make sense,” he said. Without the increase, there would be no surplus to speak of.

“We’d have been looking at a $500 million deficit,” he said.

Legislators have committed funds to things like education and other services, and bills will be due soon.

The House of Delegate’s insistence on surplus dollars for transportation “is so phony, it is so false it defies logic,” said Sen. Edd Houck, D-Spotsylvania. “We are so right, I’m willing to stick it out to the bitter end.”