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

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

GOP panel claims open primaries illegal, files suit; A33

Committee: Party’s right of free association is infringed upon if Dems participate
By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — A lawsuit pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals could radically alter the way Virginia elections are held.

Members of the 11th Senatorial District’s Republican Committee have sued the Virginia State Board of Elections for the right to keep Democratic voters from casting ballots in the district’s 2007 nominating primary.

Open primaries are unconstitutional, they argue, because they allow Democrats to participate in a GOP event, infringing on the party’s right of free association.

Lawyers for both sides argued the case before a three-judge panel earlier this week.

A lower court threw out the case, holding that the party’s rights have not been infringed upon yet.

Candidates in Virginia have several ways to make it to the General Election ballot.

Rather than having a primary or a caucus in every contested race, state law leaves the choice of method to the incumbent candidate. If the incumbent isn’t running again, his or her political party gets to choose.

If a caucus, convention or other event is held, the party has full control over who does and who doesn’t participate.

But Virginia law doesn’t afford parties any choice as to who can participate in primary elections. They’re open to everyone, with the exception that voters can only participate in one party’s primary, not both.

That’s simply not constitutional, according to the GOP committee.

On its face, the state’s open primary law allows for “party raiding,” people from the opposite political party voting in primary elections to choose a candidate who would be less likely to defeat their opponent in a general election, said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Centreville, the attorney representing the committee.

Courts have consistently held that political parties have the constitutional right to associate with anyone they choose, and that states can’t force them to associate with people who oppose them.

As the law stands now, the GOP has to “choose between taking strong positions and using aggressive methods to advance their political message and risk inciting ... party raiding Democrats,” or “moderating their message and/or using less aggressive methods in an effort to avoid or reduce the likelihood and/or severity of party-raiding by Democrats,” he wrote in court filings.

Letting the GOP exclude those who have previously voted in Democratic primaries would all but end party raiding.

“This would also have the collateral result of keeping Republican voters from crossing over and voting in Democratic Party primaries,” he said. “In my client’s view, that is exactly as it should be, Democrats should nominate Democrat candidates and Republicans should elect Republican candidates.”

A spokesman for fellow Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is defending the Board of Elections, said the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

But lawyers for the commonwealth argue in court filings that the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case was the right one.

Rule changes to allow exclusion haven’t taken effect yet.

Also “the [GOP] does not have to choose a primary to select their candidate,” lawyers wrote.

That’s not a valid argument, Cuccinelli said.

“If you are in the Lions Club and you show up for your annual meeting to elect your officers, you wouldn’t let a bunch of Rotary Club members that have no intention of supporting the Lions Club vote on who the Lions Club’s officers should be,” he said.

In the end, a successful suit may not have that much of an impact on Virginia’s political scene, according to Craig Brians, a professor of political science at Virginia Tech.

“It’s not that big of a deal, depending on what the parties make of it,” he said.

Successful candidates aren’t changing their message from primary to general election, Brians said. With TV cameras focused on races, primary candidates more often than not just treat the primary as an extension of the race in November.

Being able to focus on just known Republicans and Democrats would certainly make get out the vote drives and direct mail efforts more effective.

Republicans and Democrats have largely stopped the “retail politics” of knocking on doors and shaking hands, and are instead using electronic means to reach voters.

Full Story...

Monday, May 29, 2006

Goodlatte's anti-gambling bill advances; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

A local congressman’s effort to make interstate online gambling illegal has passed a key committee in the House of Representatives.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee reported House Resolution 4777, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, to the full House this week on a 25-11 vote.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, whose district includes Shenandoah County, would modify existing laws dealing with interstate electronic gambling to make it clear that gambling across state lines using computer networks in prohibited.

Gambling is illegal in the U.S. unless regulated by states.

“I am encouraged by the passage of this legislation through the Judiciary Committee,” said Goodlatte.

“Gambling on the Internet has become an extremely lucrative business. Numerous studies have charted the explosive growth of this industry, both by the increases in gambling Web sites available, and via industry revenues,” he said.

Government estimates put online gambling at $12 billion annually, with about $6 billion coming from bettors based in the U.S.

“These activities suck billions of dollars per year out of the U.S. economy, serve as a vehicle for money laundering, undermine families and threaten the ability of states to enact and enforce their own laws,” he said.

At present, federal law is mute on gambling and the Internet.

“The closest useful statute is the Wire Act, which prohibits gambling over telephone wires,” he said. That law never contemplated the Internet, which can use phone lines, but doesn’t necessarily do so.

The proposed act allows states to continue to regulate gambling with tight controls to be sure that it does not extend beyond their borders or to minors.

It also prohibits a gambling business from accepting certain forms of payment, including credit cards, checks, wire and Internet transfers, in illegal gambling transactions.

Federal, state and local governments can also ask courts to step in and stop violators. The maximum prison term for violation goes from two to five years.

Even “entities that have legal gambling operations in the United States” support this bill, Goodlatte said.

A number of Virginia lawmakers, including Goodlatte and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th, have tried and failed to amend federal gambling law before.

Recent developments, including the January guilty plea of Washington power lobbyist Jack Abramoff, have cleared the way for the bill to see the light of day.

Past efforts to bring the bill forward were derailed before it could make it to a floor vote.

“The efforts of Jack Abramoff and those acting on his behalf were largely responsible for widespread disinformation about this legislation” and its subsequent legislative death, Goodlatte said.

Abramoff, now cooperating with prosecutors in a congressional corruption investigation, lobbied for Indian tribal gambling interests, among other clients.

With a major lobbying roadblock out of the way, “we are now prepared to bring it back and bring about a vote,” he said.

Full Story...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

House rejects budget, will try again next week; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Virginia’s budget process is moving forward again, but the clock is ticking.

In a short but contentious floor session Thursday, Republicans and Democrats sparred over transportation before rejecting the Senate’s latest proposed budget 78-12.

The procedural move sets the stage for the budget to head back into a conference committee. Legislators from the House and Senate have agreed to get back to work next week and try to come up with a deal.

Legislators have until June 30 to get a budget signed into law before the state loses its authority to spend money. That would lead to at least a partial government shutdown.

A two-month stalemate was broken Tuesday, when the GOP-led Senate backed down from its demands that more than $1 billion in new taxes for roads be included in this year’s budget bill.

House Republicans have strongly oppose tax hikes, but said they’re willing to discuss transportation — after a budget is passed.

“The Senate has removed a major obstacle to completing our work,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean.

But “in the process of removing one obstacle, taxes, they have in some instances” moved the two sides further apart. Nonetheless, a budget should be done “well before June 30.

“We have differences, but they’re not obstacles,” he said.

But Democrats didn’t let the House GOP’s victory go unchallenged.

House Minority Caucus Chairman Del. Brian Moran, D-Alexandria, questioned Callahan about the $1 billion the House offered to set aside in the budget, in advance of transportation negotiations.

Moran asked where the $1 billion would come from, if not from tax increases.

That’s a matter for transportation talks, Callahan said.

“Perhaps at that time your side could actually introduce some legislation, which we have not seen,” he said.

“There are three pieces of legislation before a committee of this House,” Moran fired back — referring to the Senate’s regional transportation plans on hold before the House Finance Committee — before being silenced on a point of order.

Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the two most car-choked areas of the state, have been left twisting in the wind, said Del. Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth.

Elections in 2007 are closer than anyone cares to think, he said, and the window for meaningful help to those two areas is closing fast. The Senate’s retreat will have dire consequences.

“These two areas of the Old Dominion are the engine of the state. We fund what’s going on in the other areas of the state,” Melvin said.

“Ideology has trumped common sense,” he said. “These roads don’t pop up magically, Mr. Speaker.”

Pouring money into the Virginia Department of Transportation, which was the Senate’s plan, won’t fix anything, shot back Del. Jack Reid, R-Richmond.

“If we gave VDOT $5 billion tomorrow, they couldn’t lay one new foot of concrete for five years,” he said.

First, roads have to be planned. “Then we’re going to get sued, because the people that want the roads want them, but they want them to go through your yard, not theirs,” he said.

“Look at Interstate 81,” he said. “We came up with a plan to widen the highway. Then what happened? We got sued, because a widened highway would threaten the ambiance of the highway system.”

Others in both chambers have been far more conciliatory.

“All the bitterness aside that we’ve experienced to this point, I think we’re all very grateful to the Senate for meeting us this far,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

Backing off embedded tax hikes gives everyone a chance to breathe, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said in an interview earlier this week.

“That was a very difficult decision for the Senate to make, but it was the right decision,” he said.

“It’s all up to the conferees now,” Gilbert said.

Full Story...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Senate approves new state budget; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

It’s not a deal, but it’s a start.

The Virginia Senate approved a state budget Tuesday, voting 24-8 to advance a package that doesn’t include tax increases.

The vote clears the way for action on the two-year spending plan in the House of Delegates on Thursday.

The Senate’s new offering contains a $339 million, one-time infusion of cash for transportation, but only on the condition that a plan with “adequate, sustainable, and reliable revenues” is passed by Nov. 1.

If not, the money goes to local school construction and income tax relief.

Senators had pressed for $1 billion or more each year for transportation, but relented after the House wouldn’t budge.

Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, cast the new legislation not as a retreat, but as a minor modification of what the Senate has proposed all along.

“This is virtually the same bill that has passed this chamber on a number of occasions, subject to a few modifications, but not substantive, in the view of most of the members of the Senate, I believe,” he said on the floor.

No one should think the upper house is abandoning its views on transportation.

“This is not a change, this is not a difference,” he said. “We’re the same Senate, with the same goals, with the same agenda for transportation.”

The needs remain urgent, according to the chairman. Aggravation with the current transportation situation isn’t unique to Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

“The Route 81 corridor to be sure, Southwest Virginia and rural Virginia likewise,” Chichester said. In those places, the issue is “not necessarily new roads, new corridors, but widening of existing roads, making them safer for school buses and trucks … to pass.”

There’s still not a great amount of trust in some quarters that the House will make good.

A move earlier this month to table the four regional Senate transportation bills until September, including one by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, shows that the House has no interest in moving forward, said Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke.

“We’re negotiating with a body that refuses to negotiate,” he said.
Senators should have used the bill to force an up-or-down vote on their plan in the House, he said.

“I’m sorry we’re doing it this way. I don’t condemn anyone for this tactic,” he said. “But I think it’s a mistake.”

But the vote is a bright spot on what was becoming an ever-darker legislative horizon, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said after the vote.

It was also politically smart for the oft-divided Republican Party, he added.

Pressing on toward a government shutdown would have been a major political blow to the GOP, and voters wouldn’t forget which party was at the wheel when it happened, Obenshain said.

Speaker of the House Bill Howell said after the session that the House wants to keep the current special session going even after a budget deal to start transportation talks.

There are still differences with the Senate over the spending plan, but removing tax hikes, which delegates say were unconstitutionally included in the budget, is a major step forward.

“Today’s events should encourage all those who care about governing in a responsible matter,” Howell said in an e-mail to reporters.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine took a less charitable view of the situation, chiding the House for not accepting previous Senate proposals.

“The time for House leadership to come to the negotiating table is long overdue,” he says in a statement. “We are rapidly approaching the end of the fiscal year, and the need for a solution to address the shortfall in statewide transportation funding becomes more urgent every day.”

But the Democrats in Capitol Square were pushing toward a government shutdown, not a transportation package, Obenshain said.

In the end, no one wanted that.

“If all of the Democrats would have voted against it, and held out for a transportation package, we could not have passed it,” he said.

Full Story...

Monday, May 22, 2006

Legislators: Senate to introduce no tax-hike budget; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The Virginia Senate may be about to concede the battle, but the war is far from over.

Legislators from both the House of Delegates and Senate said Monday that the upper chamber is preparing to offer another budget plan that might finally break the stalemate today — one that will not include tax increases or a transportation plan.

“We’ve tossed the ball down the field. Now the ball’s in their court,” said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, a member of the Senate’s finance committee.

The message to delegates is simple, he said.

“If you’re really serious about transportation, here it is. We’ve laid down the challenge,” Potts said. Some senators have expressed doubt that House leaders are serious when they say they’ll come back to Richmond to work on transportation issues.

Are they?

“Absolutely,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. “We’ve been saying from the beginning that [transportation funding reform is] something that should be discussed separately” from the overall budget.

“We’re excited about the possibility that they’ve come to their senses,” he said, but no one should be foolish enough to think it’s a done deal.

“Even if they send us a budget, it’s still got to go to conference, and lord knows what could happen there,” he said.

The legislation was still being crafted as of late Monday, but it was due to be presented to the Senate Finance Committee at an 11 a.m. meeting today. From there, it’s expected to move on to the entire Senate for an up-or-down vote.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Potts. “I know that the conferees have labored mightily to try to come to some kind of compromise.”

Republicans in the Senate and House have been bitterly divided over how the state should go about fixing its ailing transportation system.

Senators wanted about $1 billion in new taxes each year to pay for more spending, while delegates called for using the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus and bonds to pay for road work.

But delegates objected to the Senate’s insistence on introducing new taxes in the state’s budget bill, saying the Senate was holding the state’s budget “hostage” for political leverage.

New taxes have traditionally been enacted by separate legislation, per the state constitution, delegates have argued.

Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and leaders in the Senate had hoped to repeat Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner’s successful strategy of 2004: Use constituent pressure to peel off just enough Republicans in the House to get the legislation through the lower chamber.

But roads are a far tougher sell than money for schools, teachers and police officers, some legislative Democrats conceded last week. Efforts on both sides to rally the public — and to get them to Capitol Square to buttonhole legislators — fell flat.

Delegates have said they’re more than willing to talk about transportation issues — but not while the Senate is holding the threat of a government shutdown over their heads.

A spokesman for Kaine declined to comment on the situation late Monday.

Monday’s developments were the latest in a series of running skirmishes between the two chambers. While both are nominally led by the same party, the two have been at odds since the 2004 session.

The split was so bad two years ago that the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a state budget in their allotted time and had to go into a special session to finish their work. As one senator put it, there’s not a lot of trust in the Patrick Henry Building.

“Relations are bad,” Potts said. “That’s a shame.”

Gilbert echoed Potts’ sentiments.

“It’s been better,” he said.

That’s all the more reason to come back and work on the transportation issue, Gilbert said.
Many rifts will be healed if “we can put our heads together” and come up with a plan that “everyone is completely happy with, but works for Virginia,” he said.

Full Story...

Deal or No Deal?

UPDATE 5:17 p.m.

Confirmed from members of Senate Finance via mixed metaphor: "We've moved the ball down the field, now it's in their court." Legislation is still being crafted, but it looks very much like the transportation/budget question has been divided, and the House of Delegates has held.
We'll find out this week, apparently. Events are developing rapidly, but here's the situation as of 4:30 p.m.

Members of the Virginia Senate will meet tomorrow at noon, to debate and vote on a 2006-2008 state budget that doesn't contain a package of tax hikes for transportation, according to Senate officials.

No new legislation had been introduced as of now, but the Senate GOP leadership has scheduled a press conference immediately following the session to talk about "the legislative actions of the day and how they can result in a timely resolution of the differences with the House of Delegates over the adoption of the state budget."

With the clock ticking down toward July 1, and talk of a government shutdown being bandied about Capitol Square, city halls and county courthouses all around the commonwealth, the move, if it comes to pass.

Senators and editorial writers in some areas of the state have called for the upper chamber to "call the House's bluff" and pass a budget without a transportation package. That would force the House to show just how serious they are about promises to come back and do a deal on the state's road and mass transit systems.

The Senate Finance Committee will meet at 11 a.m. Delegates will convene at 3:30 p.m. for a pro forma session, with the full chamber due back in Richmond on Thursday.

Political junkies, bring popcorn.

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Justice Department: NSA wiretaps are being monitored, even without Justice investigation

Agency defends dropping investigation in letter to Rep. Wolf

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Justice may not be able to investigate how its employees have acted in a secret anti-terror wiretapping program, but its employees are being monitored.

“Although ... [a branch of the Justice Department] has determined not to pursue its investigation, the operation and implementation of the Program continues to be the subject of exacting scrutiny and oversight,” Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella wrote in a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, last week.

President Bush acknowledged late last year that he has authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on phone conversations between suspected terrorists from overseas and U.S. citizens.

But the wiretaps are done without the consent of a secret Foreign Intelligence Services court, which can retroactively authorize wiretaps related to national security.

Lawyers with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had been given the job of investigating the agency’s involvement with the wiretapping program to ensure that no laws were broken by department employees.

But the NSA declined to give the investigators the necessary security clearances they needed to review the program, essentially closing down the review.

The announcement was made the same day USA Today ran a story claiming that major phone companies were providing customer calling records to NSA without court orders.

The Bush administration has yet to either confirm or deny the program, but the phone companies named in the story, including local provider Verizon, have denied the paper’s charges.

Wolf, R-10th, told reporters that he called for answers about the aborted investigation, but a reply might take days.

Wolf is the chairman of the State Science Justice Commerce subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. That sub-panel is responsible for budget oversight for agencies like NASA, as well as the State Department and Department of Justice.

Moschella’s letter argues that, even though Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility can’t review the program, it is being subjected to “the most intense oversight regime in the history of the National Security Agency.”

The program is so classified that the fewer people who know the details, the better, he wrote. But the program is being reviewed thoroughly and regularly.

“That review includes scrutiny by the National Security Agency’s Office of the General Counsel and by the agency’s Inspector General, who — unlike the Office of Professional Responsibility — is specifically charged with overseeing the lawfulness of employees’ actions implementing National Security Agency Programs,” Moschella wrote.

Administration officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have argued that the authority for the program comes from the president’s inherent powers as commander in chief of the armed forces during a time of war.

Full Story...

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Miller brings Senate campaign to Winchester; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — The Democratic race to face U.S. Sen. George Allen in November came to the Northern Shenandoah Valley on Friday night.

Former technology lobbyist Harris Miller spoke to Winchester Democrats as part of a daylong campaign swing that took him from Norfolk to Winchester via three campaign stops in less than 12 hours.

Miller, of McLean, is opposed by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, a native of Gate City.

Miller told reporters before his speech there’s a very simple reason to vote for him: “Number one, I can win,” he said. “We need to beat George Allen.”

“I’m a Democrat [that Democratic voters] can count on,” Miller said. “I’ve been a lifelong Democrat. My opponent has been a Republican until recently.”

For his part, Webb gave as good as he got when it came to accusations of GOP leanings — a major occupation for both candidates on Friday.

Webb’s campaign issued a series of statements to reporters, pointing out Miller’s past financial support of some prominent Republicans — including Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in 2000.

Miller said that’s just a symptom of his profession at the time.

“In my professional capacity, we were a bipartisan organization,” he said. “In my personal capacity, I’ve spent 30 years in the trenches try to elect Democratic candidates.”

A search of Federal Election Commission records late Friday found that Miller has given $43,000 to candidates since 2002, large sums of which went to candidates like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill.

An identical search for Webb turned up $520 in donations to two non-candidate political action committees.

“When I was working to re-elect Senator Chuck Robb, my primary opponent was not only endorsing George Allen he was attacking Chuck Robb, a fellow Marine, for not being strong enough on national security,” Miller said. “When I was working hard to continue the Clinton legacy by electing Al Gore, Jim Webb was calling the Clinton administration the most corrupt in modern history and voting for George Bush.”

Getting rid of Allen is what Democrats should be focused on, Miller said.

“I know the issues. You can’t just be a one issue candidate and beat George Allen,” he said.
The end result, Miller said, has to be fixing a malfunctioning government.

“We just have to get rid of the partisan ship. Washington is broken, and George Allen has been a big part of the problem,” he said. “He voted with George Bush last year 97 percent of the time. I’ve been married for almost 26 years, I don’t agree with my wife 97 percent of the time.”

Fixing government means getting the national checkbook balanced, among other things.

“This country’s spending is totally out of control,” he said. “We’re on the verge of bankruptcy as a nation, and this is not good.”

The Democratic primary is June 13.

Full Story...

Wolf: Computers won’t hold classified information; A1

Machines bought from rival, China

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department will use some 16,000 computers it purchased from a Chinese company, but only in non-secure, unclassified applications, according to a local congressman.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-6th, said Thursday the department has reviewed its purchase of the computers and would not be using them for sensitive tasks.

Wolf, who represents Northern Virginia from Frederick County and Front Royal to McLean and Manassas, is the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees funding for the State Department, which purchased the computers.

“I was deeply troubled to learn that the new computers were purchased from a China-based company and that at least 900 of these computers were planned to be used as part of the classified network deployed in the United States and around the world in embassies and consulates,” Wolf said, speaking at a press conference.

Lenovo, a Chinese computer manufacturer, recently acquired IBM’s personal computer division, best known for its Think Pad line of laptops. The State Department’s purchase was valued at almost $13 million.

But buying computers from a strategic rival, even if the seller was once part of an American company, could have serious implications.

“This decision would have had dire consequences for our national security, potentially jeopardizing our investment in a secure IT infrastructure,” Wolf said.

“It is no secret that the United States is a principal target of Chinese intelligence services.”
Michael Wessel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, described the situation in blunt terms.

“Any average computer geek knows about spyware, viruses and the countless other hardware and software devices and capabilities that could jeopardize the security of our networks and the information they contain,” he said.

The computers had removable hard drives, and could have been wiped clean and had their operating systems and other software reinstalled, but it’s far better to be safe than sorry when it comes to classified communications.

“We all remember the security situation with the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the late 1980s,” Wolf said, referring to the building that was later found to be riddled with listening devices planted by Soviet agents during construction.

Wolf wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 4, expressing his concerns about the sale and asking for a review. Similar letters went to the FBI, the nation’s intelligence apparatus and others.

“Yesterday, I received word from the State Department that it has now taken the appropriate steps to ensure that classified information is not compromised by the purchase of these new computers,” Wolf said. In addition, the agency’s procurement process will be changed to better keep up with just who owns technology suppliers.

Some machines already in-stalled in the classified communications network have been identified and will be removed.

Full Story...

Entire I-81 corridor endangered by expansion, group says; B4

Appalachian Regional Commission report says Knoxville to Bristol rail improvements would cost $399 million

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

NEW MARKET — A bigger, wider Interstate 81 is a threat to Virginia’s historic sites along its 325-mile corridor, according to a statewide preservation group.

The entire corridor is one of the 10 most endangered historic sites in the commonwealth, representatives of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities announced in a press conference Friday.

Expansion plans being considered by the Virginia Department of Transportation call for the highway to be widened to as many as eight lanes in Shenandoah County. That could have a disastrous impact on the corridor, according to the association.

Officials made the announcement at the New Market Battlefield State Park, just before the opening cannon volley of the weekend’s re-enactment.

While dozens of battle sites lie along the corridor, New Market is actually bisected by the highway. Visitors to one half of the site have to use a pedestrian tunnel under the road to get to the other side.

Other endangered sites include the Mt. Zion battlefield in Loudoun County, the Belmead Granary in Powhatan County, and the entire town of Fincastle, near Roanoke.

Locally, the future of I-81 expansion will have a tremendous effect on how Civil War history is preserved.

The Shenandoah Valley is “one of the great American places,” said Howard Kittel, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, not unlike the Great Smoky Mountains or the plains of Kansas.

Friday’s announcement is a welcome one for the foundation, he said.

“[The valley is] the place where generations of Americans settled and traversed on their way to building a nation,” he said. “Today the future of this storied valley is in our hands.”
Virginia has to do something about the highway, Kittel said.

“There is no question that I-81 desperately needs safety and operational improvements,” he said.

“But those improvements need to be reasonable and scaled to the projected natural growth in traffic demand, to what the people of the valley are willing to accept and to what the commonwealth and the nation can afford.”

A number of groups have called for the expansion of rail along the corridor to alleviate truck traffic, and thus reduce the number of new lanes that are needed. A VDOT study found that rail would at most divert 5 percent of trucks from the highway.

But the study was biased, according to David Foster, executive director of Rail Solution. It should have looked at a longer, more efficient corridor — Knoxville, Tenn., to Harrisburg, Pa.
“A lot of studies have been done to show that a corridor of 500 to 700 miles is needed for meaningful” truck diversion, he said.

That would require interstate cooperation. And it wouldn’t be cheap.

A 2004 report from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission found that rail improvements along the I-40/I-81 corridor through northeast Tennessee would cost upwards of $399 million.

But the entire project, including improvements of the I-81 corridor’s rail line in Virginia, would have a significant cost-to-benefit ratio, returning $1.38 for every dollar spent.

VDOT has extended the comment public comment period for the I-81 study until May 29.

Full Story...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Car taxes not high on legislators’ priority list; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

Car taxes may be going up around the commonwealth, but it’s little more than background noise in Richmond these days.

Legislators are in their second month of overtime trying to put together a state budget, but the GOP-led House of Delegates and Senate remain deadlocked over transportation and tax issues.

Why are taxes going up? The program legislators created to pay tax bills for drivers is running out of money.

Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore’s plan to phase out the car tax in the late 1990s was designed as an open-ended one. Whatever the local governments billed, the state would pay.

But when hard times hit in 2001, the phaseout was frozen at 70 percent. In 2004, legislators capped the program at $950 million to balance the budget.

That amount was enough to cover a 70 percent rollback until this year. Now, relief rates in the Northern Shenandoah Valley are hovering around 55 percent.

It’s not like the General Assembly didn’t see it coming.

“What you’re talking about is a problem that we’ve had for several years and it’s not going to be a problem that’s likely to go away,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, whose district includes Shenandoah, Warren and Page counties.

Virginia has been running a surplus since 2003, he said, but there’s been no major legislative push to continue the phaseout — or even just keep the rollback at 70 percent.

“We had a surplus this past biennium and no shortage of places to spend it,” Obenshain said.
Delegates have included an additional $50 million in their budget, which they say would keep the 70 percent relief alive, even if only for 2006.

But the Senate isn’t on board, and the two sides are far more focused on the debate over transportation spending as a whole.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said Tuesday that given the ongoing fight over the budget, the car-tax issue isn’t on the administration’s radar.

The $50 million wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., but that doesn’t mean he likes the idea, he said Tuesday.

“I can’t speak for my colleagues … but I’d be opposed to raising the amount we’ve got in that budget,” he said. “Leave it there, and that’s the way it ought to stay.”

But Potts has his own idea about what should be done with the tax relief — use it to build roads and mass transit systems.

“If I had my druthers, I take that $950 [million], put every penny towards transportation, shake hands with the House and walk away, and say ‘We have a deal,’” he said. “Then you wouldn’t have to be worrying about the doggone disagreement” between House and Senate.

Potts voted for the car-tax plan under Gilmore, but in hindsight, it was clearly a mistake, he said.

“You’ve got folks from Woodstock and Mt. Jackson helping to pay for relief for Lexuses and BMWs in Fairfax County,” he said.

Potts’ assertion is backed up by statistics from the Virginia Department of Taxation and the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center.

Fairfax County is home to some 13 percent of the state’s population, but received 22.3 percent of all the car-tax relief paid out in 2005.

Wealthier counties in and around Northern Virginia are more likely to get a higher share of relief than less wealthy ones. Loudoun County, home to 3.3 percent of the state’s population, got 4.4 percent of the car-tax pie. Virginia Beach, meanwhile, got 5.9 percent for its 5.8 percent of the population.

Locally, Frederick County got a 1.3 percent share of the $950 million for 0.89 percent of the population, while Shenandoah County got 0.4 percent of the money for 0.51 percent of the population.

While Potts hasn’t introduced legislation to reinstate the tax, he said the General Assembly is still in session and the window is open.

“I’ve talked it over with my colleagues … I’m still not saying no that I won’t do that,” he said. Still, “I don’t think it matters who would introduce it, it wouldn’t have the votes.”

But a promise made, even under a previous administration, should be a promise kept, Obenshain said.

“Before we start adopting new programs and new initiatives there’s some moral imperative for the GA to make up its mind and follow though on its promise to more fully fund its promise,” he said.

Full Story...

Car taxes up as state relief down; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Supervisors didn’t change the rate, but car tax bills are up in Shenandoah County this year. And lots of other places across the commonwealth.

It all starts — and ends — in Richmond.

Former Gov. Jim Gilmore’s “no car tax” plan started off in the late 1990s as an open-ended pro-mise to local governments. Given enough time, the state would eventually take over the car tax bills for personal vehicles worth less than $20,000.

But to balance the budget in 2004, legislators changed the car tax relief program from an open-ended reimbursement to local governments to a fixed pot of money — $950 million.

State officials project the total amount of claims for reimbursement will go over the $950 million the year, leaving less money for each taxpayer.

The result is higher bills, even in some cases when vehicles depreciated by more than $1,000.
For example, a 2001 Honda Accord garaged in Shenandoah County valued at $11,600 in 2005 incurred an annual bill of $99.54.

This year, the same car was worth $10,200, but came with a $134.20 bill.

After the numbers were crunched, drivers in Shenandoah County got only 54 percent of their bills picked up by the state, according to Treasurer Cindy George.

Even so, there haven’t been many complaints to date.

“Just a little confusion, if they had the same vehicle why their bill was more. Once we ex-plained it to them, there hasn’t been any complaints,” she said.

George said she tells callers that “we got a piece of the pie, and that was our piece of the pie, and we had to pass that on,” she said.

Other jurisdictions are in the same boat.

Clarke County’s relief rate dropped to 55 percent, while Frederick County’s fell to 57 percent. Officials in Warren County on Monday said they couldn’t answer the question about their relief rate.

Things aren’t as bad in Winchester just yet. The state’s northernmost city has an unusual billing arrangement, and taxpayers are just now getting their bills for tax year 2005.

Legislators took Winchester’s special situation into account, and both versions of the budget contain language that essentially lets the city stay a year behind — continuing the 70 percent level of state help while everyone else’s aid declines.

But that’s not to say bills aren’t going up. The Winchester City Council approved a tax increase last year of $1 per $100 of assessed value, essentially doubling the effective rate of taxation in an effort to pay for the $50 million-plus renovation of John Handley High School.

“We haven’t had an increase in 14 years,” Winchester Treasurer Mark Garber said. But there’s no denying that another shoe is about to drop.

“When the reimbursement rate changes, yeah, it’s going to compound that,” he said. “It’s the state changing the rules on us again. Everyone’s going to be affected by this.”

Some more help might be on the way from Richmond, though, in the form of a $50 million change to 2006-08 state budget.

Republicans in the House of Delegates have included the money — which they say is enough to hold everyone’s reimbursement rate at 70 percent this year — in their version of the state budget.

The GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t acted on the bill yet, but neither of the budgets approved by the upper chamber contained any more car tax funding.

If legislators do approve more car tax cash, it will be tough to sort out for some local governments, according to Frederick County Treasurer Bill Orndoff.

A number of governments in the Northern Shenandoah Valley send out two bills, one in the spring and one in the winter.

The first bill usually goes out after the General Assembly has set the rules for the year.

Legislators still aren’t finished with a budget, and the first payments are due in some jurisdictions as soon as June 5.

Difficult or not, if legislators approve the relief, it will find its way back to taxpayers.

“If there’s extra money, certainly the taxpayers are entitled to it,” Orndoff said. “If that’s what the General Assembly tries to do, we’ll find a way to get it done.”

Full Story...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

10th District Candidate Calls for More Congressional Oversight; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — Thursday’s USA Today story that the National Security Agency is working to compile a database of phone records on hundreds of millions of Americans is further proof that it’s time for change in Washington, according to a Democratic congressional candidate.

Judy Feder, the dean of Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, was in Frederick County on Thursday to talk to area Democrats.

“Security is a very important concern, but so is people’s privacy,” said Feder, speaking with reporters before the meet-and-greet.

According to the USA Today story, three major telecommunications companies — AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth — have voluntarily given basic information about all their domestic phone calls to the National Security Agency.

Both of the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s incumbent congressmen, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, and Feder’s opponent, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, said they hadn’t heard of the program until Thursday and wanted more information about it.

“The fact that [Wolf] hasn’t heard about it is a serious problem,” Feder said. “The information on the activities of the National Security Agency has been coming out in dribs and drabs. We need to have full disclosure of what’s taking place.”

The public is far more likely to find out about controversial government surveillance — such as the recently disclosed warrantless wiretaps conducted on overseas calls by the spy agency — from media reports than from legislative hearings, she said.

“Oversight is not being handled properly,” Feder said. “Congress needs to be on top of this, and I don’t think that they have been. I do think we need more aggressive leadership in that regard.”

For his part, Wolf said Thursday that he had made calls to the Justice Department to find out what was going on, but they hadn’t been returned when he spoke with reporters.

Legislators need to get answers, Feder said.

“Congress needs to get that information in order to hold the [Bush] administration accountable,” she said.

Winchester, Frederick and Clarke counties have been Republican country for some time, but Feder said she’s optimistic that voters are shifting their preferences based on government performance.

“We have evidence in recent electoral history that people want change,” she said, including surprising Democratic success by Gov. Tim Kaine and General Assembly candidates in places like Loudoun County — once reliable GOP strongholds.

“People who were focusing on ideological battles rather than on people’s daily concerns were replaced,” she said.

Frederick County, the largest of the western GOP strongholds in the district, hasn’t gone blue in any recent elections, but that’s no reason to stay on the far side of the Blue Ridge, Feder said.

“I care about running in all parts of the district and serving all parts of the district,” she said.
“We need to get our message out and we will. From one end of the district to the other,” she said.

Full Story...

Area lawmakers call for information on alleged NSA program; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

If the phone records of hundreds of millions of American citizens were handed over to the National Security Agency without a warrant, they didn’t get any help from a local telecommunications provider.

Meanwhile, two local congressman say they want more information about reports that the NSA is using the information to create a database.

According to a story published Thursday in USA Today, three major telecommunications companies — AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth — have voluntarily given basic information about all their domestic phone calls to the NSA.

The story further alleges that the spy agency is trying to build a database of all phone calls placed in the United States. While the contents of the calls are not monitored, the numbers called are, and are used for data mining purposes in the effort to stop terrorism, the newspaper says.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, who represents a district stretching from Strasburg to Roanoke, said more information is needed about just what transpired between the spy agency and phone companies.

“Congressman Goodlatte is not a member of the House Intelligence Committee so he was not briefed by the White House,” spokeswoman Kathryn Rexrode said via e-mail.

“But [Goodlatte] believes that it is important to establish what the facts are and what information has been made available by the phone companies,” she said.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, said press accounts were the first he’d heard of the program, but that he was doing his best to get more information from the Bush administration.

“We have a call in now to the assistant attorney general,” Wolf said. “We’re going to ask them about it.”

More information may be available today.

President Bush didn’t address the alleged data collection in a statement on Thursday, but did say that the administration is making every effort to safeguard privacy.

“We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said. “Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates.”

U.S. Senate candidate James Webb called the alleged program a “gross abuse and overreach” by the Bush administration.

Webb, a former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, is seeking the Democratic nod to run against U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., this fall. Webb is opposed in next month’s primary by Northern Virginia businessman Harris Miller.

“I believe we need a politically neutral panel with impeccable credentials and the appropriate security clearance to examine these activities and report their findings back to the American people,” Webb told reporters in an e-mail.

None of the three companies would comment Thursday, according to wire service accounts, but did say that their cooperation with government was legal.

Locally, Verizon provides telephone service to Winchester, large portions of Frederick and Clarke counties and a small area in northern Warren County.

A local telecom provider said Thursday that they’ve had no dealings with NSA — and won’t, without a court order.

David Ferguson, executive vice president for customer service at Shentel, said while big companies may have been asked to cooperate by the NSA, Shentel hasn’t heard anything from the spy agency.

“We haven’t had any discussions at all” with the NSA, he said. Even if the agency had asked, Shentel wouldn’t have complied.

“Our policy is not to release any customer information without appropriate court orders,” he said.

Shentel provides telephone, cable television and Internet access to thousands of homes from Winchester to Harrisonburg.

The kind of data alleged to have been collected and given to NSA is the same type of information used for billing. Generally, a company that can bill for the phone call has access to it.

“We collect the local call information” for calls placed inside their own network, Ferguson said. But “if you’re placing a long distance call … your long distance carrier has the ability to collect that information in order to bill you.”

Ferguson reiterated that Shentel shares no information — be it phone records or Internet traffic — without a warrant.

“Even that [call] information is privileged information, and it’s not information we would release to any entity without the proper court orders,” he said.

Ferguson said he was surprised by reports that that national companies were handing over information. He’s also the president of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association, and Thursday’s reports were the first he’s heard of it.

“It has not come up as an issue in our association, as well,” he said. “I’m at a loss to understand what exactly is transpiring.”

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Raw Data: Kaine Authorizes Interim Budget Action

From the office of Gov. Tim Kaine...

RICHMOND – Governor Timothy M. Kaine announced today that he has authorized funding for several key state programs that may run out of current funds before the General Assembly approves a spending plan for the remaining weeks of the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2006.

Governor Kaine has authorized a $7.5 million loan to reimburse localities for the state share of the cost of services for children who receive special education and foster care services under the Comprehensive Services Act during the months of April, May and June. The loan will become available only if the current funding runs out prior to final enactment of the “Caboose Bill.”

Governor Kaine has authorized a $4.5 million loan for the Virginia Supreme Court to continue providing court-appointed attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal cases, and to cover costs related to the involuntary commitment of indigent persons for mental health evaluation and care. The loan will become available only if the current funding runs out prior to final enactment of the “Caboose Bill.”

Governor Kaine has authorized $256,000 in economic contingency funds to cover the cost of one-time re-enlistment bonuses for members of the Virginia National Guard. The lump-sum $2,000 bonus is paid to eligible personnel who commit to two years of military duty between the period April 1 and September 30, 2006.

Governor Kaine has authorized up to $330,000 in economic contingency funds to continue to provide tuition assistance to members of the Virginia National Guard. These funds will be used to help Guard soldier and airmen pay for tuition, textbooks, and fees.

Repayment of the loans will be made from the ultimate passage of the “Caboose Bill,” or amendments to the 2006-08 biennial budget.

“The House of Delegates took positive action on Wednesday, approving a ‘Caboose Bill,’ and sending it to the Senate for consideration,” Governor Kaine said. “I am taking these steps today to assure those families in need, and our partners in criminal justice, local government, and the National Guard, that there will be no interruption to these critical services while the bill makes its way through the legislative process.”

Full Story...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Road to nowhere; A1

Budget still stalled

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Republicans in the House of Delegates sent an unequivocal message to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Wednesday — it’s time to get more involved in the ongoing budget standoff.

The GOP-led lower chamber met briefly on Wednesday to approve and send to the Senate a bill that closes the books on the current fiscal year.

But the “caboose bill” was a sideshow compared to what delegates had to say about an apparent policy shift announced last week in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

Kaine was in Winchester on Friday for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, where he told reporters that he thought it would be a good idea to separate tax increases for transportation from the rest of the state budget.

“That is a great step toward compromise with the House,” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, quoting Kaine from media reports.

“As we all know, stories tend to be accurate all the time, Mr. Speaker,” Athey said, drawing some laughter from members.

But “if this is the governor’s position … then it is time for the governor to actively notify our other members of the press that he feels that way.”

Telling the rest of the commonwealth that he agrees with the House of Delegates might just get the Senate to move even further and break the impasse, Athey said.

“This would be an opportunity for the governor to show leadership in this area,” he said.

Kaine’s statement in Winchester does bring more hope to the situation, said Del. Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News, a House budget negotiator.

“If he did say that, I see that as a positive step,” Hamilton said.
Speaker of the House Bill Howell, R-Fredericksburg, was a bit more blunt about the situation.

“[Kaine’s] not a potted plant,” he said. “He can get people on his side of the aisle moving.” A phone call or a note from the governor might go a long way in getting senators back to the negotiating table, he added.

At the very least, Kaine should “let people in all parties know how he feels,” Howell said. That action by itself might move the impasse.

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall was unmoved.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if this is the Virginia House of Delegates or ‘Lord of the Flies,’” he said. “It is laughable when the Republican House leadership blames the governor for their own inability to get along with fellow Republicans who control the state Senate.”

And Kaine is involved in the process already, he said.

“Governor Kaine is working every day with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate who would rather work for common ground than play along with the speaker’s blame game,” Hall said.

Delegates reiterated their promise to actively work on a comprehensive transportation package later this year — if the Senate will pass a budget without tax hikes for roads embedded in it.

But the budget has to come first, said Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean. Without a budget, the state might have to close up shop on July 1.

House leaders are trying not to “dump in the governor’s lap an unprecedented catastrophe in Virginia,” he said. “We’re trying to help him.”

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, called on both Kaine and the Senate to approve some form of continuing budget resolution just in case the standoff continues into July.

Kaine has told reporters repeatedly that he’ll keep state government open until some other power, like a court or the legislature, tells him to stop.

Marshall said Kaine needs to elaborate on how he intends to do that. The state constitution is very specific, he said. No budget, no spending.

“You were in Winchester the other day, and you said in effect ‘Trust me, I have a plan,’” Marshall said.

Kaine’s chief of staff, Bill Leighty, declined to elaborate on what the plan is when asked by Marshall.

“Sitting here being silent like the Cheshire cat is not a good answer,” Marshall said, speaking from the floor.

“If you had asked the captain of the Titanic, ‘Sir, do we have enough boats in the case of an emergency?’ and you got back an imperious response from the first mate, ‘The captain will consider your request if and when we hit an iceberg,’” Marshall said, “what kind of man is at the head of this boat?”

Full Story...

Rep. Wolf: Answers needed about gas; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

President Bush needs to make better use of the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to deal with rising gas prices, according to one local congressman.

Citing the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, called on Bush to be more aggressive in his efforts to deal with the situation.

Wolf is seeking re-election this year. He is challenged by Democrat Judy Feder, the dean of Georgetown University’s public policy school, and Libertarian Wilbur N. Wood of Berryville.

“[Bush] should call to the Oval Office every chief executive of the major oil companies and let them explain to the American people why the average price for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline in the United States today is nearly $3, and in some areas at least a dime over that,” Wolf said, speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Oil companies have said that simple economics — high demand and low supply — and a switch to ethanol as the anti-pollution additive of choice along with a lack of refining capacity are at the root of higher prices.

Oil prices have gone as high as $74 per barrel in recent weeks. Gas prices in Virginia were all over the place on Wednesday. In Nelson County, drivers reported paying as little as $2.59 for regular, while some in Arlington reported prices as high as $3.19.

Along the U.S. 17 corridor, prices ranged from $2.79 to $3.09 over a matter of 30 miles. In Front Royal, several stations were selling unleaded regular for $2.72 a gallon.

“My constituents, especially working people raising families and those on fixed incomes whose wallets are being pinched tighter and tighter, tell me they aren’t satisfied with those answers” from oil companies, Wolf said.

Wolf also called for greater transparency on the world’s oil markets.

“Currently, most energy exchanges occur on the New York Mercantile Exchange or on electronic exchanges such as the InterContinental Exchange,” Wolf said, adding that New York traders are subject to much more scrutiny than those on the InterContinental.

“After Hurricane Katrina hit, we saw prices jump. Many Americans certainly understood Katrina’s wrath, but there were questions raised then about the almost overnight jump of gasoline prices,” he said.

Congress ordered an investigation, the results of which are due May 22.

“Can markets really be manipulated?” Wolf asked. “Think back to the electricity market manipulation by Enron.” Federal regulators have laid some of California’s power problems at the failed energy trading firm’s feet, leading to more federal regulation.

“There is no similar process for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the unregulated energy markets,” he said. “Who is to say whether investment firms, commercial bankers or hedge funds could actually be driving up oil prices through futures trading?”

“We owe it to our constituents to find the answers, to bring everybody together,” he said.

Full Story...

House to Kaine: Time to Engage

Republican leaders in the House of Delegates sent a message to the third floor of the Patrick Henry Buildling — the level inhabited by much of the Executive Branch — on Wednesday: Get involved, and we might just avoid a government shutdown.

But the administration gives as good as it gets. A spokesman said Kaine is engaged, just not with people who are throwing around blame at press conferences.

Look for a full story here later.

Full Story...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Back to Richmond

The House of Delegates will convene Wednesday in Richmond, but what they'll be talking about when they get there has yet to be seen.

House and Senate have reportedly come to terms on the 2004-2006 "caboose bill" that wraps up the fiscal year ending June 30. But is that all that's on the calendar? The usual suspects in Richmond are being tight lipped, and the unusual suspects don't know.

Meanwhile, START has two meetings scheduled this week, and the Senate is due back in for a real session on Friday.

See you on I-95.

Full Story...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Apple Blossom Time (or Politicians on Parade)

The iBook of Mild Peril and I drew the Saturday Apple Blossom Festival straw this year, and one of the things set for Monday's paper is the Grand Feature Parade. The parade route conveniently comes right past our Cork Street office, which makes for comfortable, air-conditioned viewing.

So far, we've seen:

• U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., on horseback
• U.S. Rep Frank Wolf, R-10th, in a convertible.

Gov. Tim Kaine made an appearnce yesterday, as did Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

Add in assorted members of the House of Delegates and Senate in today's event, and we've almost got a rolling version of the Patrick Henry Building.

Filter out the marching bands and street vendors, and it looks a lot like the Shad Planking, except with less fish, The General Lee and the Redskins' Hogettes. And Johnny Bench and the Hokie Bird.

Happy Apple Blossom!

Full Story...

Friday, May 05, 2006

Raw Data: Senate Challenges House to Act

UPDATE: Norman over at One Man's Trash has the House response. I'd post it myself, but I'm watching a parade.

Text of a letter from Senate budget conferees to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean:

Dear Vince:

The people of Virginia deserve better treatment than they have received from the House of Delegates in recent days. Refusing to act on our transportation package is the latest example.

This Special Session was called to deal with both the budget and transportation. The Senate has been hard at work on the subcommittee and full committee levels. We have brought forth proposals for debate and passage on the floor of the Senate. However, that is where the progress stops.

We sent you a budget on April 19th, but your committee has not met to consider it. You asked for transportation measures divorced from the budget and we complied. We sent them to the House where they now languish with no votes to approve, reject, or amend. House action to delay consideration of the bills for 90 days telegraphs your desire to extend the Special Session into the late summer and fall, wasting taxpayer dollars.

Virginians expect progress, not procrastination. We all know how the system is supposed to work. However, the House’s refusal to do its job frustrates the procedure.

We have said repeatedly, if you do not like our transportation plans, send us yours. It has been 53 days since we entered this Special Session. So far, not a single piece of stand-alone legislation has been introduced to deal with transportation in the House.

It is not just our legislation that is being ignored. The needs of our citizens are being ignored. When will the House act?

Full Story...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

START Restarts

The Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force led by Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, is up and running again. It will be meeting tonight.

The group met during the interregnum between the last two incarnations of the General Assembly, eventually producing the first version of the Senate's transportation plan, which has since undergone a number of revisions.

This session's long, strange trip continues...

Full Story...

Va. transportation bills hit brick wall in House; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — Four Senate transportation bills, including one from a local legislator, ran into a brick wall in the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

The House Finance Committee tabled bills for 90 days that would raise taxes statewide to pay for roads and allow for the creation of regional authorities in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and along Interstate 81.

The action doesn’t kill the bills outright, but doesn’t advance them to the full House for a vote, either.

Among the four was a bill by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, which would have allowed for any three cities or counties along the I-81 corridor to go in together and raise the sales tax by 1 percent to fund local road projects.

Potts wasn’t on hand to take questions from the panel.

“I’m sorry the senator could not be with us,” said Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst, before expressing concerns about Potts’ bill.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is considering a major improvement of Interstate 81, he said, and the House will want more information about how Potts’ proposed regional authorities will interact with that process before giving their assent.

Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Chesapeake, Potts’ seat mate and the patron of the Hampton Roads bill, said he was of the impression that the Potts bill was designed more for projects like the extension of Va. 37, also known as the Frederick County Eastern Loop.

Potts has said in recent interviews that his bill isn’t designed to address the valley’s major highway, but smaller projects of regional importance.

Another bill would have raised a litany of taxes to pay for statewide road improvements.
Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, the bill’s patron and one of the Senate’s more passionate orators, told the committee in rising tones that transportation congestion is costing the state dearly, and may someday cost the state lives.

Hawkins said he had been told by officials with Ford that traffic tie-ups in Hampton Roads make it 20 percent more expensive to ship vehicles from their Norfolk plant.

While congestion wasn’t the only factor behind the decision to close a 2,400-employee plant in 2008, it certainly didn’t help the situation, he said.

Virginia could also be in for a tragedy if a major hurricane like Katrina blows in from the Atlantic with little notice. Evacuation might prove difficult given the current state of roads in the Tidewater area.

The mood in the House is much more inclined toward regional approaches, rather than a statewide tax hike, said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville.

Legislation to raise taxes for roads and mass transit in Northern Virginia would “stand a much better chance” of passing if it wasn’t tied to a statewide plan, he told the bill’s patron, Sen. Jeannmarie Devolites-Davis, R-Vienna.

Other members insisted that it’s premature to talk about transportation. Virginia has to have a budget in place before the legislature can talk about new taxes for highways.

That doesn’t make sense, said Davis. Legislators should be able to tackle two things at the same time.

The real issue, she said, is that senators aren’t convinced the House will be open to talking about the situation if the upper chamber gives in and passes a budget without an integrated transportation package.

“I think we have some trust issues,” she said.

There has to be a statewide ap-proach to transportation, Hawkins added. Without it, the state will have “thriving lilies in a stagnant pond,” he said.

Hawkins also went to great lengths to draw the 6-cent fuel terminal operators fee as something other than a tax. It’s a tax-deductible business expense, he said.

Call it what you will, it will drive terminal operators out of Virginia, said Mike Ward of the Virginia Petroleum Council.

Some terminal operators, who only act as a warehouse for gasoline, make as little as a half cent on each gallon they distribute, Ward said.

“They have to pass that fee on to survive,” he said.

The tax would also increase the number of tanker trucks on Virginia roads, he said. On average, it would be $480 cheaper to fill up a truck in North Carolina and ship in the fuel than it would be to fill up in Virginia.

Hawkins acknowledge that the bills weren’t perfect, but said they were designed as a place to get the conversation started.

Long-term debt and general fund money for transportation “are the only two things that are off the table,” he said.

Legislators are due back in Richmond on Wednesday.

Full Story...

Senate attempts to end budget standoff again; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

Senate plans to raise taxes and create regional transportation authorities will get a hearing in the House of Delegates today.

After that, all bets are off.

Members of the House Finance Committee will meet today at 1 p.m. to hear proposals to raise taxes by about $750 million per year to pay for transportation projects and create regional transportation taxing authorities all over the state.

The bills are the latest attempt by the Senate to break the two-month standoff over the state budget. The two GOP-controlled chambers failed to agree on a budget before adjourning in March and were called into a special session by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Senators gave some ground last week, approving a tax increase plan by Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, that stands alone from the state budget.

Delegates have argued that putting tax hikes into the state’s two-year spending plan, rather than passing them as stand-alone legislation, violates the Virginia Constitution.

Even getting their plans to a hearing in the House is good news, said Scott Leake, a spokesman for the Senate’s leadership, in an e-mail to reporters.

“During the regular session in February, Sen. Hawkins had his transportation bill heard at a sparsely attended sub-committee meeting at 7:00 … on a Friday morning,” he wrote. Today’s afternoon hearing time “before the full committee seems much more appropriate.”

Some local legislators see the picture quite differently.

The Virginia Senate is in a “controlled retreat,” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, chairman of the Republicans’ policy committee.

“Certainly some of the ideas coming out [of the Senate] are constructive,” he said, pointing to plans like the one put forward by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, which would allow three cities or counties along the Interstate 81 corridor to create a regional body to plan and build road projects.

But delegates aren’t going to support anything that brings higher taxes into the equation, Athey said. As Kaine and the Senate have discovered, there’s just no appetite for higher taxes.
Regional authorities could work, provided they spent existing revenue — something the GOP proposed in its own road plan during the regular session.

Both sides now seem to agree that “just kind of writing a blank check to VDOT is not going to solve our problem in the final analysis,” Athey said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, expressed similar concerns about regional authorities.

He was one of four senators who voted against the plans when they came up last week.
Voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have already spiked the idea of a sales tax hike.

“We submitted it to the voters, they rejected it,” Obenshain said.

“The I-81 tax authority is a completely new concept that came out of the blue,” he said, and it’s not ready for prime time. “I don’t think it’s an appropriate approach for the Shenandoah Valley.”

But the Senate’s nod to regional taxes may be enough to break the highway taxes impasse. The idea isn’t entirely heresy on the House side.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore proposed regional taxing authorities and regional referenda as his solution to the state’s problems during the 2005 campaign.

“The important question is whether there are going to be enough House members who are swayed by it,” Obenshain said. “The Senate has long since decided that higher taxes are the way to go.”

One dog that definitely won’t hunt is higher fuel taxes, said Athey. The Senate plan contains a 6-cent-per-gallon fee designed to come out of the pocket of oil companies.

But “Virginians are pretty intelligent people. They know where that thing is going to end up,” Athey said. “It’s going to end up coming out of their pocket.”

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

August 1, anyone?

The House of Delegates Finance Committee has tabled a package of Senate transportation bills for 90 days. The move keeps a 6 cent fuel fee for terminal operators, a grantor's tax hike and various regional authorities alive until August.

More later...

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Potts’ bill headed to House; A1

Item among latest Senate offerings on transportation

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — The Virginia Senate’s last-round budget and transportation offerings — including one from Winchester Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. —may get a cold reception in the House of Delegates this week.

The two GOP-led chambers have clashed over transportation taxes this session. But the Senate moved toward the House’s position somewhat last week after two days of deliberations.

Senators again approved a package of tax increases to fund transportation, but did it outside of the budget bill itself.

Senators want new taxes and fees to pay for about $1 billion per year in new road and mass transit funding, while delegates insist that the state use existing revenue, including billions of the state’s surplus, for transportation.

Members of the Republican majority in the House also said that including tax hikes in the budget bill is unconstitutional.

The fourth version of the Senate’s transportation finance plan, approved 29-4, retains some key elements of its predecessors, including a 6-cent per gallon tax on gasoline distributors, a hike in the tax on diesel fuel and a $10 increase in vehicle registration costs.

Higher levies for selling real estate — embodied in a controversial grantor’s tax hike — are also back.

Taken with $369 million from the general fund over two years, the plan would spend a total of $3.5 billion over four years. It levies an average of $783 million in new taxes each year.
New this time is a statewide authority for three or more cities or counties to join efforts and form a regional transportation authority that could impose a 0.5 percent local sales tax and a 1 percent hotel/motel lodging tax.

Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, decried the fuel tax in a statement last week, saying the commonwealth’s drivers are already paying too much at the pump.

“The Senate continues to support an effective 6-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, something even Governor [Timothy M.] Kaine appears to have abandoned — at least for now,” Howell says.

Kaine had been a strong supporter of the Senate’s overall approach to fixing the state’s ailing road system, but said during a radio interview last week that he’s no fan of a gas tax increase.

A separate regional authority bill by Potts, R-Winchester, was also approved and sent to the other end of the temporary Capitol.

Senate Bill 5015 would allow any three contiguous cities or counties along Interstate 81 to form a transportation authority for new projects and planning. It would have the power to levy a 1 percent sales tax.

The bill passed 29-4, with two other legislators from the I-81 corridor, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Sen. Em-mett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, voting against the measure.

The entire slate of bills could face tough sledding on Wednesday.
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said Monday it’s not yet clear what the lower chamber will be voting on when members come back to Richmond.

“Some of that stuff may not even make it out of committee,” he said.
While he hasn’t seen the fine print of the local authority bills, Gilbert said he’s likely to oppose them.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that I’m not a big fan of creating another taxing authority,” he said. “I think the senators over there are trying to find creative ways to tax people without them noticing that they’re being taxed again.”

Regardless of transportation issues, the legislature may be able to finally close the books on the current two-year budget.

“It seems like there was some movement on the ‘caboose’ budget” last week, Gilbert said. The caboose bill ties up loose ends of an expiring biennium and is usually a non-controversial item.

This year’s caboose bill became a political football when the Senate took apart the House bill and rebuilt it as an extended two-year budget for the state.

“We could finally get that taken care of,” Gilbert said.

Legislators convene at noon Wednesday.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

We're back

Let the political chaos resume.

**A rainbow marks the end point of the Tennessee trek. Photographed in Limestone, Tenn., on Tuesday.

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