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, May 04, 2006

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.”