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, January 31, 2006

Wolf may have competition for U.S. House seat; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

It looks like 10th District Rep. Frank Wolf will have some competition in his run for a 14th consecutive term.

Judy Feder, the dean of the Georgetown University Public Policy institute, is apparently seeking the Democratic nod to run against the incumbent Republican to represent the Northern Virginia-Northern Shenandoah Valley district in the 110th Congress.

Feder has said in recent published reports that she was considering a run challenging Wolf, but the Fairfax County resident recently put up a Web site, www.JudyFeder.org, which is billed as her official campaign page.

Calls to Feder’s office and campaign headquarters weren’t immediately returned on Monday, but the candidate has briefly laid out her reasons for running on her newly minted site.

“The past few years have been hard for our country,” she says. “But instead of addressing our problems, the people running the federal government have spent their time and our money serving special interests.”

“As a mother who has raised two children in our community, I know what matters to Virginia’s families,” Feder says. “As a leader in the fight for affordable health care, I know what reasonable steps government can take to improve our lives. And as a teacher of the next generation of public leaders, I know what it takes to make government effective and accountable.”

Feder, who holds a doctorate from Harvard University, has been a member of Georgetown’s faculty since 1984 and has published a number of papers on matters of the uninsured, Medicare and Medicaid.

She also has federal government experience. Feder spend three years as the principal deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.

Feder joins Libertarian candidate Bill Wood in the effort to displace Wolf. Wood, an optician in Winchester, won his party’s nomination late last year.

The Libertarian nominee also has an Internet presence, at www.woodforcongress.com.
Wolf kicked off his re-election bid Friday at an event in Northern Virginia, and has his own site up and running, www.wolfforcongress.com.

The last Democratic candidate to oppose Wolf was James Socas, whose 2004 bid ended in an almost 2-to-1 victory for Wolf.

The incumbent Republican got 64 percent of the vote to Socas’ 36 percent.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley’s other congressman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, hasn’t yet made a formal announcement of his intentions in the 2006 race, but staffers said Monday he would seek an eighth term.

Goodlatte hasn’t been challenged in a November contest since 1998, when he defeated David Bowers.


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Lawmakers not whistling Dixie over state song; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Debates over taxes in the General Assembly are nothing new. But a discussion about a new state song that turns into a debate over taxation is.

That’s just what happened on the floor of the Senate on Monday afternoon, as members took up the second reading of a bill that would designate “Shenandoah” as the official state song.

Virginia has been without an official song for almost a decade. “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” was retired as the official song in 1997 because some of its lyrics were offensive to some groups.

Legislators began a contest to replace the song in 1998, but it was suspended in 2000 after controversy erupted over the selection process.

Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas, introduced a bill to put the issue to rest this year. Senate Bill 682 would designate “Shenandoah” as the official state song.

But the debate took an odd turn Monday as senators considered amendments to the bill. Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Centreville, tried to change the bill and put “Taxman,” a song made popular by the Beatles, in its place.

The song has more of a connection to his Northern Virginia district than “Shenandoah” does, he said. Some residents of the state’s top right corner feel “like all they ever get from Richmond is more taxes.”

Cuccinelli’s amendment was never taken up for consideration, although the changes that would make “Shenandoah” the “interim” state song were approved.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley’s two representatives in the body both weighed in on the debate.

“Shenandoah” is more than good enough to be the state song, said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who spoke against the committee amendments that would make it the “interim” song.

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, decided to add his voice to the debate in verse.

In a brief recitation that drew chuckles from the body, Potts riffed on the lyrics of “Shenandoah” to fire back at Cuccinelli, reflecting themes from his failed gubernatorial campaign.

“The no tax crowd will not prevail, we will simply let them sail,” Potts read, before taking his seat.

Others took to Cuccinelli’s proposed amendment with less humor.

Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, protested that Cuccinelli’s effort falsely labeled Virginia as a high-tax state.

“Apparently there’s some kind of political advantage in trying to persuade Virginians that this is a high-tax state,” he said. “It’s not.”

A study by the legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that Virginia is in the bottom tier of states when it comes to tax burdens, he said.

“Lo and behold, Virginia comes up 45th,” Houck said. “Perhaps the [Cuccinelli amendment’s lyrics] should be amended … to ‘I’m the low-tax man.’”

The bill must pass one more reading in the Senate before being passed on to the House of Delegates.


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Saturday, January 28, 2006

GOP offers reform bills; B1

Transportation, growth are topics among provisions

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Republicans in the House of Delegates rolled out more of the reform portion of the transportation package Friday.

But a key provision sought by the Kaine administration and local governments that would allow local governments to stop rezonings that would over-burden roads wasn’t included.

House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Fredericksburg, along with Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, and others introduced the bills at a press conference in the temporary capitol Friday morning.

“Too many people have assumed that the only answer to crowded highways and secondary roads is the construction of still more roads with no real way to include local governments in these decisions,” Howell said later in an e-mail to reporters. “We can and must do better.”

House leaders have said they’re working up a transportation plan comparable to those introduced by Kaine and the Senate, but they want to make changes to local land-use laws and the Virginia Department of Transportation before they bring additional revenue into the equation.

Both Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and the upper house have introduced plans that would raise about $1 billion annually over the next four years for transportation via taxes and fees.

Two of the five House bills offered, both by Athey, bring some money into the equation.

House Bill 1506 lowers the threshold for local governments to begin accepting voluntary proffers from developers.

Current law only allows those cities, counties and towns that have had a 10 percent census-to-census growth take the donations. Athey’s bill drops that number to 5 percent, expanding the number which qualify from 254 to 324.

House Bill 1104 expands a VDOT “revenue sharing” program that lets local governments match government money to pay for their own transportation projects. Athey’s bill allows governments to use proffers as their matching funds.

“We’ve been looking for something that we could move through the General Assembly that would assist localities while they are making these decisions,” Athey said.

“This also reflects a commitment on the part of the Republican Caucus that as we craft a transportation solution, we need to move a lot of these decisions out to localities,” he added.

But there’s not a GOP consensus to give more authority to turn down rezonings based on transportation issues. As of late as last week, some Republicans said they thought such a bill was all but a certainty.

“I think most of us are in agreement that it’s long since time” for such a law, said Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, earlier this week.

Local governments like Frederick County have long sought an adequate public facilities ordinance that would let them say no to development based on school overcrowding or traffic issues.

Kaine pledged his support to a limited version of such a law in his first State of the Commonwealth address.

“I will propose a bill clarifying existing law so that localities are able to reject rezoning requests if a proposed new development would overwhelm the transportation network,” he told legislators.

Such a measure may come forward from a Republican, but it won’t be a major push by the entire caucus, according to Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Howell.

“Those are the bills we feel have the support to make it out of the House of Delegates,” he said. “We have a consensus” on the package of bills that was introduced Friday.

Even without the zoning veto, local government lobbyists say they support the package.

“This is a significant effort to enable local governments to responsibly deal with growth, particularly as it relates to transportation,” said Mark Flynn of the Virginia Municipal League.

Flynn and a representative of the Virginia Association of Counties were both on hand for the policy announcement.

The package is made up of House Bills 1521, 1513, 1528, 1506 and 1104.


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Thursday, January 26, 2006

State budget amendments tackle teachers, schools, crime; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Schools and sex offenders. Museums and moratoriums. It’s budget amendment time at the Capitol.

Former Gov. Mark R. Warner introduced his last two-year budget to legislators in December, and delegates and senators had until last week to give their suggestions on how to change it.

Legislative staffers have now processed all those requests, and money committees on both sides of the Patrick Henry Building will give each the once-over before coming up with a final two-year spending plan.

Among the amendments are more than $26 million worth of changes over two years to fund a crackdown on sex offenders, supported by Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, is one of the legislators helping McDonnell’s agenda through the House of Delegates.

It’s not cheap, but Virginia has to tighten its tracking of sex offenders, he said. To that end, McDonnell is backing legislation that will require mandatory electronic tracking for three years to life upon release.

“The courts will have the option, depending on the offender, of using either active or passive [Global Positioning System] tracking,” he said. “Active technology would cost a lost a more, but it gives authorities much more information.”

For high-risk offenders, the system would allow law enforcement to look at a screen and see where a sex offender is at any time. McDonnell is also behind bills that would toughen enforcement of sex-offender registration.

“We realize that the price tag of these reforms overall is about $33 [million] or $34 million over the biennium, which is significant,” McDonnell said.

But he added that he and legislators are “looking for ways to cut the costs. We need to do that. It’s a hefty price tag, but those discussions are still ongoing about modifications to the bill.”

Other amendments offered by the local delegation would get public school systems in Winchester, along with those in Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Rappahannock counties, included in the Northern Virginia “cost of competing” district.

Systems in that area get an extra amount of money from the state to help them recruit and retain teachers in the fast-growing, high-demand labor market.

Sherwood, along with Dels. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, and Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, have all introduced amendments to get local systems into the region. If successful, the valley schools would get anywhere from $1 million to $4 million more from the state each year over and above any other increases.

This isn’t the first effort to get Warren County into the Northern Virginia “cost of competing” adjustment, Warren County Superintendent Pam McInnis said.

As more and more denizens of Northern Virginia move out to the distant exurbs for lower costs of living, they bring with them a demand for top-notch schools, she said.

And there’s a giant educational black hole just to the north that pulls in teachers like a vacuum cleaner.

“Loudoun [County] is needing 700 new teachers for next year,” McInnis said, recalling a presentation at a superintendents’ meeting Wednesday. With a salary scale that starts at $42,000 and is likely to top out at around $83,000 this year, keeping up with Loudoun is all but impossible, she said.

“We have some teachers — we don’t have the number that Frederick does — but we have a fair number of teachers that will go toward that more Northern Virginia area,” she said.

The Loudoun County teacher conveyer reaches all the way to Woodstock and points south, said Shenandoah County Superintendent H.D. Northern.

“We’re on the outlying area of that, but it certainly impacts us,” he said.

When teachers in Winchester, Frederick or Clarke head for greener pastures, teachers in places such as Shenandoah County often move north to fill the gap, Northern said.

Getting teachers in classrooms is no mean feat anymore.

“It’s hard to accomplish that very thing,” he said. “We spend all year recruiting. We go to five or six states, job fairs, universities, just to generate the number of applications that we need.”

Higher “salary would help us tremendously,” he added.

Both superintendents said the extra money would be welcome, but they’re not convinced it’s on the way.

“We would put it to good use,” McInnis said.

“But I’m not going to spend it yet,” Northern said.


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By the Numbers: The Valley Asks for Cash

Now that Gov. Mark R. Warner has concluded his term in office, the serious work of amending his final two-year state budget is under way.

Legislative staffers in Richmond have completed the task of processing the hundreds of budget amendments requested by new Gov. Tim Kaine and nearly 140 members of the House of Delegates and Senate.

Virtually every member of the body has requested some kind of change. The following are some of the changes requested by the Northern Shenandoah Valley delegation.

Del. Clifford L. “Clay” Athey, R-Front Royal
• $150,000 over two years for Belle Grove Plantation.
• $200,000 over two years for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation.
• $100,000 over two years for Wayside Theatre.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock
• $300,000 for the Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy Foundation.
• $50,000 for the New Market Library.
• $5,765 for the Woodstock Museum of Shenandoah County.

Del. Joe T. May, R-Leesburg
• $500,000 over two years for Virginia Tech’s Equine Veterinary programs.
• $75,000 for Oatlands Plantation in Loudoun County.
• $37,500 for the Clarke County Historical Association

Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester
• $1.12 million over two years to create a Silivicultural Water Quality team.
• $920,000 for the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.
• $500,000 for the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum’s new building in Winchester.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg
• $18.9 million in bonds for a new dining hall at James Madison University.
• $3.75 million for a pedestrian tunnel under South Main Street at JMU.
• $25,000 each year for the Science Museum of Virginia to plan galleries at the Harrisonburg Children’s Museum.

Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester
• $112,000 each year to pay for two new magistrates in Loudoun County.
• $60,000 to replace water quality monitoring equipment for use by Friends of the Shenandoah River.
• An additional $10,300 over two years to aid in maintenance of Confederate graves at Stonewall Cemetery in Winchester.


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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Delegates focus on reform of Va. transportation; A1

Changes seen as first priority; funds will come second

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Reform, not revenue, is the driver behind the emerging House of Delegates transportation plan.

Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and leaders in the Virginia Senate both announced plans to fix the state’s ailing transit system last week that contained some land-use and Department of Transportation changes, along with about $1 billion per year in new transportation funding.

But the House GOP caucus is taking a “reform first” approach, leaders said Tuesday.

“We think it’s important first to lay the groundwork for some reasonable reforms in land-use, which is tied to transportation, then also some proposals to some significant changes … in the way [the Virginia Department of Transportation] does business,” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, the chairman of the caucus’ policy committee.

With all the talk about new taxes and revenue streams, reforms might wind up being an afterthought, Athey said.

“We had better make that part of the debate at this point, or we may wind up with another huge tax increase and two or three years from now none of the transportation improvements that have been promised as a result of it will end up happening,” he said.

No fewer than 10 reform bills are already working their way through committees, according to Paul Nardo, chief of staff for House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford.

Bills that would expand the use of “design-build” contracts at the state and local level have already been passed by the House and moved on to the Senate.

Others that would privatize interstate maintenance and the operation of the state “Intelligent Transportation System” and widen the field of financing options for public-private partnerships are in committee now.

Athey has offered House Bill 1506, which would allow any local government that has seen more than 5 percent population growth from 1990 to 2000 to accept proffers from developers.

Current law allows proffers in those localities who have seen 10 percent or more growth from one census to the next.

Two other bills, HB 1528 and HB 1529, require local governments to add transportation improvements such as roads and their costs to their capital improvement plans.

Once the reforms are on the books, the House is open to more transportation revenue, Athey said.

Moving money from auto insurance taxes to transportation is one place House leaders are looking for money. That would shift more than $111 million to transportation in fiscal 2007 alone.

Touching the general fund is bad mojo, argued state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester.

Potts took to the floor of the Senate on Tuesday afternoon to lay out what he thought was wrong with transportation plans both seen and unseen.

Both the Kaine administration and Senate leaders have put forward plans that would raise about $1 billion per year in new revenue dedicated to the state’s transit system.

“Some are suggesting that we can find these funds in the general fund,” Potts said. “There is no way in the name of God that we can fix transportation out of the general fund unless we make massive cuts to education, health care and public safety.”

Calls to spend the state’s surplus — some $545 million at the end of the last fiscal year and projected to be $860 million by June 30 — are misguided, according to the senator. The $545 million is already spoken for, and future windfalls aren’t guaranteed.

“Yes, we did end fiscal 2005 with a good year,” Potts said. “We also need to look at the sources that generated these funds.”

At the bottom line, the surplus came largely from federal homeland security spending in Northern Virginia, he said.

“Is this the star to which we want to hitch our transportation wagon?” he asked. Today’s surplus is tomorrow’s deficit.

“As sure as I’m standing here, we’ll see a new recession in a few years,” Potts said.

But the alternatives proposed by the Senate are just as unpalatable to the House, Athey said.

One of the major funding sources in the Senate plan is extending the sales tax to gasoline at the wholesale level — likely a 10-cent per gallon levy.

“We all know where that’s going to end up,” Athey said, “with people who are already paying tremendously high prices on gasoline.

A $1 billion tax hike when the state is flush with cash is a hard sell, the delegate said.

“I don’t know if the majority of the Senate has the stomach to do that again, two out of the last three years,” he said. “We running close to a $2 billion surplus. I think taking off the table using funds from that surplus that we could dedicate to transportation is a mistake in the final analysis.”


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Monday, January 23, 2006

Valley gives Kaine, Senate plans mixed reception; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — The two transportation plans introduced in Richmond on Friday got a mixed reaction from government and business leaders in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

Senate Republicans and Gov. Tim Kaine both introduced plans to fix the state’s ailing transportation finance and highway system. Both would raise about $1 billion per year over the next four years and make changes to the way local governments handle land use issues.

Both also would contribute hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s general fund to transportation, but as “one-time” expenditures. They also would raise the sales tax on cars and trucks from 3 to 5 percent.

That’s one reason neither solution got a warm welcome from one valley automobile dealer.
Jim Stutzman, owner of Jim Stutzman Chevrolet, said calls to levy the full 5 percent sales and use tax on cars and trucks went too far.

“I think it’s unfair to target one industry,” Stutzman said. The Senate plan would put the onus for funding almost entirely on automobiles and the people who sell and service them, he said.

“We had a huge transportation fund back a few years ago that got raped by the General Assembly,” Stutzman said. Now that fiscal times are tough for roads, the Senate is in effect taking back the car tax relief that started under the Gilmore administration.

“I recognize that we have transportation issues in this state,” he said. But the 60 percent hike in auto sales taxes, “I think that’s a little aggressive.”

The tax has remained at 3 percent for several years, but the cost of a car has risen steadily over the years.

“I think you’d see a significant increase in revenue from the sales tax [over a period of years] on automobiles without having to change that rate,” he said. Hiking the tax would add a significant wallop to the cost of going to the dealership.

“When you make that kind of an increase on [a sale of $20,000 to $25,000,] you’re talking about adding an additional $500 or more,” he said. Changes to titling taxes and registration fees — a $10 or $20 hike from the Senate, a maximum $13 hike from Kaine’s plan — all add to an unavoidable tax burden, he said.

At the end of the day, people will pay the taxes, if passed, because they have no choice. “In the American lifestyle, we need automobiles,” he said.

While the fine print hasn’t been released yet, the package doesn’t look nearly as ominous to developers as had been thought, said J.P. Carr, president of the Top of Virginia Builders Association.

“I think this has a lot less to do with developers than it does than consumers,” he said.

Both plans contain changes that would affect the building industry, but they reflect practices already used in Frederick County and other fast-growing areas.

“I think it has an impact on everyone more than us. What Gov. Kaine is proposing ... is very similar to what is being done already,” Carr said. “We believe that the true problem with the transportation network in Virginia is that we’re playing catch-up for years of neglect.”

Officials in Frederick and Warren counties said they’d rather not comment on the proposals until they get the details, but some expressed hope.

“On the surface it sounds pretty good,” said Opequon District Supervisor Bill Ewing of Frederick County. “Frederick County is [already] looking at cluster development as a possible approach to development in rural areas.”

Whatever comes out of Richmond, it needs to help Warren County advance its major highway projects, said Happy Creek District Supervisor Tony Carter.

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, introduced a third option Friday with much less fanfare.

Potts’ plan would raise the sales tax to 6 percent and use the money to pay for big-ticket items such as improvements to Interstate 81, a new crossing in Hampton Roads and the widening of Interstate 66.

It also calls for the creation of toll roads.

The House Republican Caucus is slated to introduce its plan on Monday.


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Friday, January 20, 2006

Senate, governor to release road plans; A1

Today’s press conferences will highlight details

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

An advisory panel created by Senate finance leaders has recommended at least $831 million per year in new revenue from taxes and fees to help pay for transportation in Virginia.

The Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force, convened last year by Virginia Senate President Pro Tempore John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, has completed its work and has recommended the package of higher revenue and transportation policy changes to the General Assembly.

Chichester and other Senate leaders are slated to hold a press conference this morning to discuss the Senate’s plan to fix the state’s ailing transportation system.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tim Kaine will announce his plans at a press conference today at 3:15 p.m.

The fact that the two plans are being announced on the same day doesn’t mean that Kaine and Senate leaders have been coordinating their efforts.

“We’ve been too busy working on our own transportation plan,” said Kevin Hall, Kaine’s press secretary.

Leaders in the House of Delegates said they will announce their own transportation package as early as Monday.

The exact details of what will be in the Senate Finance Committee plan to be released this morning were not available, but both Chichester and Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, key members of the START panel, were to be at the announcement, according to aides.

Items included in the recommendation, which was published on the Finance Committee’s Web site, include:

• Raising the vehicle titling tax by 1 percent to 4 percent, to raise $218.7 million per year.

• Extending the state’s sales tax to gasoline and other motor fuels. Had the tax been in place in calendar year 2004, it would have generated $334 million.

• Raising the state’s vehicle registration fee by $10 to $39.50 for most vehicles, which would raise $70.3 million per year.

• Charging sales tax on automobile repairs to generate $58.3 million per year.

• Higher excise taxes on tires and car batteries, hikes of $2 and $1 to raise $10.6 million and $1.8 million, respectively.

• Raising the “per gallon” tax on diesel fuel by 1.5 cents to 17.5 cents per gallon to raise $18 million per year.

Higher “per gallon” taxes on gasoline also are included in the recommendation, as are “indexed” gas taxes like those levied in West Virginia and other states, but the recommendation doesn’t include a specific hike or amount for either.

Also included in the $831 million is $111.3 million generated by permanently shifting taxes on automobile insurance to transportation and $8.3 million from raising the levy on car rentals by 1 percent to 11 percent.

Policy changes in the recommendation include better maintenance planning for the Virginia Department of Transportation, encouraging higher-density development at the local level and requiring local governments to provide connectivity between subdivisions before roads are accepted into the state network.

Some ideas that didn’t make the cut from earlier meetings included regional sales taxes and income taxes for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

Discussions between key House and Senate transportation officials about today’s announcement were ongoing late Thursday.

Regardless of the specific content, any significant tax hike is likely to inflame conflict between the two chambers left over from the bitter budget fight in 2004.

During that marathon session, Senate Republicans and a handful of their House of Delegates counterparts voted with then-Gov. Mark R. Warner to approve a budget that raised taxes by $1.5 billion.


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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kaine, Senate to talk transportation on Friday

Transportation will be the focus in Richmond on Friday, as the Kaine administration and Senate leaders will brief the media on the issue.

An aide in the office of Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, the chairman of the Senate Finance Transportation subcommittee said Hawkins would speak to the media at 9:30 a.m. on the subject.

Recommendations from the Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force, which Hawkins chaired, have been completed and conversations between House and Senate transportation officials are ongoing, according to aides.

A spokesman for Gov. Tim Kaine, D, said that the administration would roll out its transportation plan's specifics at a press conference at 3:15 p.m.

Policy leaders in the House of Delegates have promised their proposals early next week.


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Valley awaits transportation initiative details; A1

Gov. Kaine’s plan is expected this week or early next

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Local eyes are on Richmond this week as builders, legislators and local government officials all wait for the second shoe of Gov. Tim Kaine’s transportation plan to drop.

Expected later this week or early next, Kaine said his initiative would reflect the same themes he sounded throughout the 2005 gubernatorial campaign — including tying transportation and land-use issues together at the hip.

“We must give local governments the power to control their own destiny and balance the benefits of economic growth while protecting their quality of life,” Kaine told legislators Monday night.

“I will propose a bill clarifying existing law so that localities are able to reject rezoning requests if a proposed new development would overwhelm the transportation network,” he added.

Of course, it’s all about the details, according to one Frederick County official, but given the strong hints dropped by the administration that they’ll include new power for local government, supervisors are paying attention.

“Anything we can do right now to control some growth would be great,” Opequon Supervisor Bill Ewing said. “Definitely, transportation is a problem in our area.”

Current law leaves supervisors in a difficult position if a development is in line with the county’s comprehensive plan. County officials have often lamented that if they vote against such a rezoning, a judge will likely overturn their decision.

“I would take a very serious look at [Kaine’s plan],” Ewing said. “I don’t totally understand what it is at this point, but it definitely merits consideration.”

Other officials shared Ewing’s desire to see the plan.

“I’d prefer not to comment on something I hadn’t seen the details of,” said Front Royal Mayor James Eastham.

But transportation and growth are closely linked, and a new tool in the tool box would be welcome.

“Our goal locally is to mitigate the impact of new development and its impact on transportation, putting the burden of financing that on the developer and not on the people of Front Royal,” Eastham said. “Anything that helps us achieve that goal would be welcomed.”

While the Northern Shenandoah Valley isn’t growing at the same pace as Northern Virginia proper, residents here have reason to take notice of anything out of Richmond that might affect growth.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in new houses were permitted in Frederick, Clarke, Warren and Shenandoah counties in the first 11 months of 2005, according to the data — 2,357 new single-family homes.

Through November, the permit value for the new houses was more than $457 million, with more than half going up in Frederick County alone.

Giving local governments more power is a bad idea, according to J.P. Carr, president of the Top of Virginia Building Association.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley home construction group spent Monday in Richmond lobbying against changes.

“No one really has a firm grasp on what it is just yet,” Carr said, but Kaine’s outline “seemed to cover a lot of bases that are already being addressed by local communities.”

Locals “have control over transportation issues during the rezoning process,” Carr said. The real problem is money.

“What is not being done is the transportation system is not being properly funded. It’s been under-funded for years,” he said.

Linking land-use and transportation, “we think, from what we’ve heard, would be disastrous,” he said. “It would probably slow or stop growth within [Urban Development Area] zones, while people evaluate what they’ve got, meanwhile, developers will go into the rural areas to keep up with the pace of growth.”

That’s a recipe for sprawl and higher costs, Carr said.

“We’re trying to avoid this,” he said. “I think the entire building community is under the belief that the transportation plan needs to be fully funded.”

But Kaine isn’t the only evangelist of the land-use and transportation issues gospel in Richmond.

The House Republican caucus has its own transportation plan to roll out early next week, according to Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

“I think the House package will probably be a little bit better defined [than Kaine’s plan at this point],” he said. “We will have a House package that address the issue of transportation funding and land-use planning.”

It hasn’t made an appearance yet, though, out of deference to Kaine. Huge issues like that are usually “not addressed until the governor takes the lead on it,” Athey said. “But at the moment, it seems to me that the governor could be speaking off the House Republican policy plan.”

Not everyone in the GOP family is ready to sign off on the apparent details of Kaine’s land-use vision.

“In essence, what he’s doing … creating pressures on the housing market which is going to make it harder for hard-working
people to buy a home,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. “To tie the transportation needs of the commonwealth to land-use reform, I think, is misguided.”

Nonetheless, new authority for local government is very likely to happen, said Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg.

“I think most of us are in agreement that it’s long since time,” he said.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

GOP state delegates talk tax relief at Capitol; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Yes, Virginia, there’s still a car tax.

But there’s also a second wind brewing in the House of Delegates to kill it.

House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, held a policy briefing for reporters at the temporary Capitol in Richmond on Tuesday on the agenda for the House Republican Caucus, and tax relief was high on the list.

The GOP caucus in the House wants to do something to return a portion of the state’s projected $1.5 billion-plus projected surplus to taxpayers, Howell said.

“It is the right time to pay a responsible dividend to the people who shouldered a greater burden during hard economic times earlier this decade,” he said. “It seems to me — and many in the General Assembly — that some of this money ought to be returned so it can be saved or spent by those who earned it.”

Giving the money back should take the form of a sales-tax holiday for back-to-school shopping, a repeal of the estate tax, or “death tax,” and completing the rollback of the car tax, added Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, the chairman of the caucus policy committee.

“That was a commitment made by our predecessors in office, and suffice it to say that at least the House Republican Caucus have not given up on that commitment to one day phase out the car tax,” he said.

The car tax has proven to be a particularly resilient foe for legislative tax-cutters, resisting numerous efforts to zero out levies on personal cars worth $20,000 or less.

Rolling back the tax was first proposed by Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore during his campaign in 1997 to succeed George Allen.

Enacted into law in 1998, the Personal Property Tax Relief Act was designed to have the state take over payment of personal property tax payments to local governments on the first $20,000 of a car or truck’s value over time.

At the bottom line, local governments got the money they needed, while residents had one less tax to pay.

But when the economy faltered in 2000 and 2001, the General Assembly froze the phaseout of local tax at 70 percent.

Faced with what looked like a financial crisis in 2004, legislators did away with the phaseout altogether, instead setting aside $950 million annually to pay car tax bills.

For car owners, that will likely translate into higher bills this year, as more and more cars of higher value line up for their share of the capped state aid.

Final numbers aren’t ready yet, but finance officials in Shenandoah County have said they expect state funding to pay for somewhere around 62 percent of bills in 2006.

In Winchester, bills for many residents will more than double, as the City Council hiked the tax to help pay for some $55 million in renovations at John Handley High School.

A number of bills have already been introduced that would complete the rollback of the car tax, but GOP officials haven’t yet said which one, if any, would get their support.

“I wouldn’t want to commit to one particular bill,” Athey said, adding that it could be done in the form of a renewed, slower phaseout or an increase in the $950 million cap via the state budget bill.

Whatever mechanism is used, the House will have to get a reluctant Senate and governor on board.

Senate Republicans have been at loggerheads with their House counterparts over fiscal matters for some time. The 2004 legislative session concluded when the Senate and a minority of Republicans in the House voted with Democrats to raise taxes by $1.5 billion.

Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine hadn’t said anything about the GOP plan as of late Tuesday, but told legislators during his State of the Commonwealth address Monday night that the 2004 budget deal had to be preserved.

“It would be a grave mistake now to violate that bipartisan budget reform agreement — an agreement that has earned the overwhelming support of our constituents,” he said. “We must honor it.”

The GOP caucus is well aware of the friction car tax relief has caused in the past, Athey said, and will work to find something that doesn’t raise too many eyebrows.

“Part of this is going to be proposing something that they’ll find more palatable,” he said.


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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

In brief: Tate cries foul over vote to save Potts

WINCHESTER — One of the candidates seeking to replace state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, in 2007 is crying foul over the vote that retained Potts’ leadership position.

Mark Tate, Potts’ opponent in the 2003 Republican primary, decried last week’s Republican split in the Senate, in which Potts and three others voted to allow the former independent gubernatorial candidate to keep his seat at the head of the Health and Education Committee.

“It is beyond outrageous that any individual can acquire, then abuse the Republican nomination and party label that elected him to his office, then betray the very voters that provided him that nomination and affiliation by actively seeking another office — in mid-term, no less — as an independent running against the party’s legitimate nominee,” Tate says in a statement.

“But it is no less disgusting to see a few Republican officeholders aid and abet such blatant disloyalty by voting to allow him to ‘return to the fold,’ no questions asked and join a unanimous vote of the Senate Democrats.”

Tate pledged to maintain “party integrity” if elected and challenged potential rivals Jill Holtzman-Vogel and Phil Griffin to do the same.


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Wolf wagers against Va. bill on gambling; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Virginia’s government recognizes eight separate American Indian nations inside the commonwealth.

A bill pending before Congress would extend federal recognition — and the benefits that go with it — to six of those tribes.

But that’s a very bad idea, according to 10th District Rep. Frank Wolf, who says the bill could be bad for Virginia's government.

Wolf says it’s not about heritage — it’s about gambling.

Tribal recognition has been in the headlines of late because of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, planned for 2007.

At present, organizers want descendants of both the English and American Indians to be on hand. But a number of the surviving tribes have said they’ll be hard pressed to join in the celebration if the federal government hasn’t recognized them as actual tribes.

Wolf, a Republican who represents Winchester, Frederick and Warren counties and parts of Northern Virginia, has long been an opponent of federally sanctioned gambling. That’s why he strongly opposes the bill for federal recognition of the tribes.

Wolf sent a strong letter to President Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when he learned that casinos would be eligible for some tax breaks to aid in reconstruction.

He also issued a call last week for a halt to new tribal recognitions in the form of a letter to Bush, calling the process “completely broken.”

Wolf made a point last week of correcting a reporter, who called the subject “Indian gaming.”

“It’s not ‘gaming,’” Wolf said. “Games are what you play when you’re at the beach.”

U.S. Sens. George Allen and John Warner, both R-Va., along four U.S. representatives from Virginia’s eastern half, have signed off on a bill that would grant the tribes federal recognition and take casinos off the table.

The new administration of Gov. Tim Kaine also has thrown its support to the effort.

“We will work with the [congressional] delegation, including Representative Wolf, to see if we can move forward on the issue,” Kaine’s press secretary, Kevin Hall, said Monday.

But there’s no need to ram recognition through Congress, Wolf said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees “a long detailed process that serves the nation well.”

Wolf says he has no problem with granting Virginia’s tribes federal recognition.

“I have great respect for the [Virginia tribes],” Wolf said. “I did offer an amendment [to past legislation] … that would have looked at how you improve housing and health care for Indian tribes, and it failed.”

But Wolf says that there’s a loophole that might allow newly recognized tribes to pursue casinos in the future.

“The current bill would not foreclose from somehow moving into gambling,” he said. “The tribe says we don’t want gambling, we don’t believe in gambling.”

Wolf said he takes them at their word, but some future generation of tribal leaders might change their minds. And if the gambling camel gets its nose under the tent, he added, the results could be disastrous.

Gambling interests bring unimaginable amounts of money to bear on state and local politics, particularly when it comes to matters of expansion and land use, Wolf said.

He also questioned wheth-er casinos provide enough benefits to tribes to justify the strain they put on communities. That’s not to say unemployment and other serious problems on some reservations don’t need help.

Reservations across the country are in dire need of improvement, he said.

“Very few Indians are actually prospering right now,” he said.

Indian casinos also are at the heart of a scandal rocking Washington’s political establishment.

Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to a number of charges earlier this month, including attempting to bribe federal officials.

Federal prosecutors charge that Abramoff helped raise money for Republican interests by taking large fees from lobbying clients, like a number of American Indian tribes with casinos, and diverted them to fundraising efforts and outright bribery.

“It is indeed sad and very wrong that Mr. Abramoff violated the trust of so many,” says Ernest L. Stevens, Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association in a statement issued after the Abramoff indictments.

Gambling is a huge business, and the money it can bring to bear can “just tie a community up in knots,” Wolf said.
Virginia’s government isn’t perfect, but the corrupting influences that have driven the Abramoff scandal are largely absent from politics in Richmond, Wolf said.

That would change the first time one of the native nations opened a casino.

“There’s so much money. All you have to do is hit the word ‘Abramoff’ on Google,” Wolf said. “I don’t want that for the state of Virginia. We have honest, ethical government.”


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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Esteem for Warner reflected in Kaine; A1

Poll: Voters would support allowing governors to serve two terms in a row

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Virginia voters want their governors to be able to serve two terms, according to a new survey, and some pundits say today’s inauguration of Gov. Tim Kaine is proof.

The survey of 1,181 Virginians was conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and Center for Survey Research in the weeks following the Nov. 8 election.

The first round of results released Friday show that, had he been able to run for a second term, Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner would have been a formidable candidate.

Warner is leaving office with a job approval rating of almost 75 percent, and some 66 percent of voters want to change the state’s constitution to let governors serve two terms in a row.

Current law allows for repeat terms for all other statewide offices, but governors have to sit out four years before they can run again.

“It is not surprising, given the remarkable popularity of Gov. Warner that most Virginians support a constitutional amendment to allow a governor to serve a second term,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, in an e-mail to reporters.

“The November 2005 gubernatorial election was, in many ways, a vote of confidence in the policies of the Warner administration,” he said.

Kaine’s campaign sounded that theme early and often during the run-up to Election Day, talking about the “Warner-Kaine administration” as often as possible.

Republicans tried to cast Kaine as a more liberal version of Warner, particularly on issues such as taxes, gun control and the death penalty.

But the Kaine campaign hewed closely to Warner’s line on all counts, invoking the incumbent’s name as often as possible, and the charges refused to stick.

Kaine as Warner II is a theme that the winning campaign carried over after the election as well.

Kaine has named key figures of Warner’s administration to his own cabinet, including Chief of Staff Bill Leighty and Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer.

Warner’s popularity is likely driving the desire for two-term governors, said Paul Freedman, an associate professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and research director for the Center for Politics survey.

“More than two-thirds of Virginians would support allowing governors to run for re-election,” he said. “Only 26.8 percent oppose” while the rest say they don’t know.

“Support for easing the one-term limit is strongest among Democrats” at 75 percent, “but even 64 percent of Republicans endorse the notion,” he said. “This may be an idea whose time has come.”

Kaine’s win came from strong support across broad categories of voters, and stronger than expected support in some surprising ones.

“It was a clear and decisive victory in nearly every demographic category for Governor-elect Tim Kaine,” said Sabato.

In the end, it was independents, the elusive block of voters who say they’re not aligned with either major party, who turned the tide for Kaine, according to the survey.

Independents were more than 25 percent of voters and they broke more than 2-to-1 for Kaine, 67.4 percent to Kilgore’s 28.4 percent. State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, who based his candidacy on an appeal to independent voters, took home 4.3 percent of the key block.

While a majority of both men and women surveyed said they supported Kaine in the November election, the poll uncovered a gender gap of more than 10 percent, with almost 62 percent of women in the survey supporting Kaine, compared with only 52 percent of men.

Kaine also peeled off 13.5 percent of Republican voters, according to the survey, while Kilgore only snagged 3.9 percent of Democrats.

“Women and independents were the keys to victory in the November election,” Sabato said.


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Friday, January 13, 2006

Site Update

The iBook of Mild Peril and I are back in the Shenandoah Valley, so I've updated the stories that ran during the General Assembly session open this week. Some communications problems kept me from updating entire stories at the time.

Watch for more political goodness here this weekend.--GS


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Gilbert moves for new VDOT interstate plan; A1

Idea would add one lane in each direction on I-81

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — Fixing Interstate 81 is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the character of the Shenandoah Valley, according to members of the local legislative delegation.

And there’s a move afoot in the General Assembly to put the matter to bed permanently.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, introduced a resolution late Wednesday that “requests” the Virginia Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to add one lane in both directions on the highway, with more around cities and other population centers.

It also tells the department that legislators want the $141 million earmark in the latest federal transportation bill used for “truck only” lanes and climbing lanes in the mountains.

“Valley legislators along Interstate 81 feel the STAR Solutions plan will in the long run hurt citizens in the valley and everyone who uses the road,” he said. “It’s going to modify the character of the valley forever if we build an eight- or 12-lane monstrosity through there.”

STAR Solutions, a consortium of contractors, has submitted a $6.3 billion public-private partnership plan to expand the roadway and separate cars and trucks, which had drawn both cheers and protest. Count Gilbert among those against the plan.

One more lane, even if just for trucks, is a “reasonable and measured approach,” he said. “We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves. We don’t want a toll road running through the valley, either. People shouldn’t have to pay for a road they’ve already paid for once.”

Does it have the votes to make it though either chamber? It’s hard to say right now, said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

“We’ll see,” he said, smiling. “I’m hopeful.”

If nothing else, the resolution is an expression of the desires of the people who live in the top end of the valley.

“I think that’s consistent with most of us in the Shenandoah Valley caucus,” Athey said.

VDOT officials are also studying the corridor. An environmental impact study is under way. That document, not the STAR Solutions proposal, will determine what an expanded I-81 looks like, according to the agency.

Gilbert said he put the legislation in the form of a resolution and used the “request” language out of respect for the executive branch. The Commonwealth Transportation Board and secretary of transportation are charged with such decisions normally.

“We’re talking a separation of powers kind of issue here,” he said. And when the legislature has an opinion with a majority in both houses, Gilbert added, people listen.

Passage of the resolution would tell state government “this is the mood and will of the General Assembly, lets them know this is how we feel about it, and lets them know that we’re serious about it,” he said.

There is a chance that additional bills will come forward to the same effect, but that will carry the force of law, subject to discussions with the Senate.

Sen. Emmett Hangar, R-Mount Solon, put in a resolution in 2005 that would have forced VDOT to stop its negotiations with the consortium until the General Assembly gave it the go-ahead.

That bill never even came up for a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I’m interested in being more direct, as well,” Gilbert said. “This is a good start.”

The legislation is House Joint Resolution 143.


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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Potts will keep chair by one vote; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. is apparently still a Republican.

The Winchester senator and former independent gubernatorial candidate survived a move on the opening day of the Virginia General Assembly by just one vote.

Some 19 GOP members of the Senate voted to strip him of his leadership of the powerful Education and Health Committee — including Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.

This was the second attempt to punish Potts for challenging Republican gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore. Potts’ “Operation Upset” got him on the ballot as an independent candidate, but he came away with only 2 percent of the vote.

An attempt to remove Potts from his chairmanship during last year’s veto session failed when Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine ruled that the move was out of order.

Speaking after the session, Potts said he was sure of the outcome all along.

“I’m delighted,” he said. “I knew going in that it was a fore-drawn conclusion that we were going to be fine.”

Three Republicans, including Potts, voted against a report that would have realigned the committees and left Sen. Frederick Quayle, R-Chesapeake, in charge of Potts’ committee, which deals with matters including K-12 education and abortion.
Quayle; Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham; and President Pro Tempore John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, voted with the entire Democratic caucus to preserve the present committee arrangement. Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, was absent from the session.

Keeping him in power was all about sending a message to the conservative wing of the GOP, Potts said.

“A lot of my Republican colleagues felt that we had to make a statement to that right wing element of the Republican Party,” Potts said.

Virginia is moving toward the center — and toward Potts’ way of thinking, the senator said. Witness the victory of Kaine and losses by the GOP in the House of Delegates.

A special election this week to replace Republican Del. Preston Bryant, who is moving into the Kaine administration, resulted in a Democratic win.

“Lynchburg yesterday is a very strong indicator of which way this state is moving,” Potts said. “I don’t think there’s any question. The [GOP] House has lost seven seats in less than three years, and they haven’t lost their last seat.”

It wasn’t a smooth start across the lobby at the House of Delegates, either.

An occasionally testy debate between Republicans and Democrats over changes to the rules that will make it easier for committees and subcommittees to kill legislation didn’t sit well with the minority.

“The rules changes are partisan and undemocratic, and they deny hundreds of thousands of Virginians access to their government,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Del. Brian Moran, D-Alexandria, after the day’s session.

“We are citizen legislators, sent here to be the voices of the people who elected us. These rules changes will effectively disenfranchise the voters we represent,” he said.

“This is not the Virginia way,” added House Minority Leader Del. Frank Hall, D-Richmond. “It’s an abuse of power that will harm the citizens of the commonwealth, because it prevents access and stifles debate on the most important issues facing the people of Virginia.”

But it’s all so much bellyaching, said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

“[Democrats] understood that those rules were going to pass and they didn’t have the votes to change it,” he said. And while it does give Speaker Bill Howell, R-Fredericksburg, more power, it’s “much fairer than they were when the other party was in power.”

The changes are designed to move legislation through more quickly, supporters said. With more than 1,000 bills already filed, House leaders need to be able to weed out the field on occasion.

In his opening remarks after being re-elected to lead the chamber, Howell promised to “ensure the fairness of the House’s deliberative process” and “continue working to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of legislative operations.”

Both chambers reconvene today at noon.


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Live from Richmond: Day Two

Short session. The House has already packed it in for the day, and the Senate is taking time to say nice things about Sen. Bill Mims, R-Leesburg. Mims is leaving to work in the office of Attorney General-elect Bob McDonnell. At last count, 1,900 pieces of legislation had been filed.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Potts: Still chairman

The iBook of Mild Peril is having a bit of trouble talking to the home office (see the incurable quotation mark problems below), so here's some highlights from today's story-- GS

Some 19 GOP members of the Senate voted to strip him of his leadership of powerful Education and Health Committee — including Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg.

This was the second attempt to punish Potts for challenging Republican gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore. Potts' "“Operation Upset" got him on the ballot as an independent candidate, but he came away with only 2 percent of the vote.

An attempt to remove Potts from his chairmanship last year failed when Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine ruled that the move was out of order.

Speaking after the session, Potts said he was sure of the outcome all along.

"I'’m delighted," he said. "“I knew going in that it was a fordrawn conclusion that we were going to be fine."

Four Republicans, including Potts, voted against a report that would have realigned the committees and left Sen. Frederick Quayle, R-Chesapeake, in charge of Potts' committee, which deals with matters including K-12 education and abortion.

Quayle, Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, and President Pro Tempore John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, voted with the entire Democratic caucus to preserve the present committee arrangement. Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, was absent from the session.

Keeping him in power was all about sending a message to the conservative wing of the GOP, Potts said.

"“A lot of my Republican colleagues felt that we had to make a statement to that right wing element of the Republican party," Potts said.

Virginia is moving toward the center --— and toward Potts' way of thinking, the senator said. Witness the victory of Kaine and losses by the GOP in the House of Delegates.

A special election this week to replace Republican Del. Preston Bryant, who is moving into the Kaine administration, resulted in a Democratic win.

"Lynchburg yesterday is a very strong indicator of which way this state is moving," he said. "I don'’t think there'’s any question. The [GOP] house has lost seven seats in less than three years, and they haven'’t lost their last seat."


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Potts survives leadership challenge

State Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr., R-Winchester, survived a challenge to his leadership of the Education and Health Committee by one vote today. Watch this space later for a full recap of the day's action in Richmond, plus Potts' reaction to the 20-to-19 vote.


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Gilbert aiming to expand Va.’s death penalty; B1

New delegate introducing two bills spurred by killing of gang informant

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — Murder should be a capital offense in Virginia, regardless of who pulled the trigger, according to newly minted Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

He’s aiming to make that the law of the land during his first session in Richmond.

Gilbert is set to introduce two bills when the General Assembly opens today, both of which would expand the state’s death penalty. He was elected in November to replace retiring Del. Allen Louderback, R-Luray.

One would make a person who orders a murder eligible for death, while the other would extend the ultimate sanction to those who murder a witness or police informant.

“The triggerman bill is aimed at treating criminal kingpins the same as the people they order to commit their crimes,” Gilbert said. “Under Virginia law, the person who came up with the idea for a crime” is usually prosecuted as if they committed it themselves.

But that stops when the crime is murder.

If “I’m your superior in a gang, or even if I paid you” to pull the trigger, “I’m not treated as if I’m the one that committed the crime,” he said.

Killing someone who cooperates with authorities is also a non-capital offense in Virginia. If criminals know killing a witness could lead to their death, they might think twice about doing it, Gilbert said.

It’s “another line of defense for people who are cooperating with police. Shooting a police officer in the line of duty triggers the death penalty,” he said. Witnesses deserve the same protection.

“If [a criminal crosses] that line, they are subject to that ultimate punishment,” he said.

Those are two reasons federal authorities had to step in and prosecute the murder of 17-year-old MS-13 gang informant Brenda Paz. Her body was found at the Shenandoah River near the Meems Bottom covered bridge.

Federal law allows for the death penalty in such cases.

“In the case of Brenda Paz, the guy who ordered it … started the chain of events rolling that led to her death. But for his position in the gang, he would not have had the authority to do that,” Gilbert said. A former assistant Shenandoah County commonwealth’s attorney, Gilbert was one of the prosecutors who worked on the Paz case.

Oscar Antonio “Pantera” Grande, 22, and Ismael “Arana” Juarez Cisneros, 26, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of release last year in connection with the murder.

Two other men, Denis “Conejo” Rivera, 21, and Oscar Alexander “Gato” Garcia-Orellana, 32, were acquitted by the same jury.

Had Gilbert’s bills been law at the time, the crimes would have been capital offenses in two ways.

Both the House of Delegates and Senate convene today at noon. Neither bill had been assigned a number as of late Tuesday.


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Potts may face renewed Republican wrath; A1

Senator’s bid for governor roused colleagues’ ire

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

When does a professed Republican cease to be a Republican?

It’s a question that will likely be answered in some form either today or Thursday, as state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. learns whether he’ll get to keep his leadership position.

Potts is the chairman of the Education and Health Committee, where bills on hot buttons like abortion and K-12 schools must win approval before moving on.

But whether Potts will be the chairman when the panel meets for the first time this session on Thursday morning is an open question, according to General Assembly observers.

Potts may well face the renewed wrath of Republicans who say his independent bid for the governor’s mansion in 2005 amounted to leaving the party.

Every Republican in the Senate, save Potts himself, signed a letter last year asking the four-term senator from Winchester to step down from his post. Senate rules automatically strip any senator who changes parties during his tenure in office of any chairmanships he or she might hold. What defines “changing parties,” though, is a matter of interpretation.

Potts, who did not return a number of phone calls for comment on this story, has said he’s a Republican as long as he says he’s a Republican. However, GOP leadership committees around the state disagreed, and passed resolution after resolution last spring expressing their view that Potts’ run against Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore amounted to his resignation from the party.
An effort was made during the 2005 veto override session to give Potts the boot, but Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine ruled that motion was out of order. An effort to override his interpretation of the rules failed.

A number of Republican senators involved in the effort last year to push Potts out of his chairmanship have said they are considering the options they’ll have going forward.

But the GOP majority hasn’t been marching in lock step in recent years.

While the House of Delegates and Senate factions of the GOP don’t always get along, there’s significant political space among the Republicans in the Senate alone.

The fate of Potts isn’t an ideological issue. It’s politics, plain and simple, according to Matt Smyth of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“The GOP breakdown might look like the rift over taxes in 2004 if it came to a vote,” he said, but it likely wouldn’t split along purely ideological lines.

There are members in “all parts of the Republican spectrum that [say] Potts went outside of the party mechanism and caused trouble for a Republican nominee,” Smyth said.

“It’s another instance of disagreement within the party,” he said. It distracts from whatever the Republican or majority agenda would be in this year’s legislature.

Regardless of how they feel about it, fighting over Potts might be bad politics.

Committee assignment “isn’t as big a concern to the average Virginian as what’s going on with the budget or even some of the social issues that could come up,” Smyth said.

No one wants to look like they’re practicing “politics as usual,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re fighting over who’s on a committee, it comes across like that.”

Some involved in the 2005 push have said they’re ready to go again. Others have expressed caution.

Potts’ fate has the electronic chattering class abuzz with possibilities.

Writers and commentators have been throwing around rumors like snowballs, but most have centered on Potts leaving the Senate if forced from his position.

Some had Potts leaving his seat for an appointment by Kaine, now the governor-elect, to lead the Virginia Department of Education. Kaine officials promptly shot that down, both by denying it and then appointing the president of Emory & Henry College to the post.

Others had Potts leaving to become the athletic director of a Virginia college or university. Another has him remaining in the Senate, but moving to caucus with the Democratic minority.

At the end of the day, Potts’ fate may depend on who’s sitting in what chair on any given day.

Under Senate rules, the presiding officer is the person charged with ruling on whether Potts has left his party. Lt. Gov.-elect Bill Bolling has declined to comment on the matter specifically, but has said he will enforce Senate rules.

But Kaine, Bolling and Attorney General-elect Bob McDonnell won’t take office until the following week — Inauguration Day is Saturday in Williamsburg.

Today’s session will open with President Pro Tempore John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, as presiding officer.

The General Assembly convenes at noon.


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In Session: Day 1

Now that the House of Delegates and Senate have organized themselves, the Senate has taken a break to let the House hash out their disagreement over the rules, in particular the change in how committee seats are handed out. They're due back any time now.

Meanwhile, the Patrick Henry Building is nice to look at, but small. Very, very small. Communication between the two chambers this year will take about 20 steps, provided the members can get around the crowds in the small, shared lobby. It's an interesting opening day.


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On the ground...

The Daily's political staff and the iBook of Doom's temporary replacement, the iBook of Mild Peril, are on the ground in Richmond, quasi-live from the Patrick Henry Building (aka the temporary capitol).

Watch this space for news from day one of the 2006 session of the General Assembly.


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Interest peddling: Virginia's legislature no stranger to persuasion; B1

This year's General Assembly will see about five lobbyists for every lawmaker

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

There are a lot of nervous people on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. these days.

A high-powered lobbyist with connections to the very top of the Congressional leadership has signed a plea deal admitting to attempted bribery and one member of the House of Representatives has admitted to taking bribes and resigned.

That has some under the rotunda promising legislation that would reform the way lobbyists can attempt to influence the federal government. But lobbying isn’t just a Washington pastime.

There are plenty of people trying to exert influence over how states spends money and sets policy, too.

Interests as varied as taxicab operators to the National Rifle Association spent $952 million on lobbying state government in 2004.

From May 2003 to April 2004, they spent almost $14 million in Virginia alone, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit government research group.

It’s not just policy groups and trade associations that hire representatives to plead their case before the legislature. Virginia Beach, Staunton and Norfolk are among the cities that have lobbyists registered for the coming year.

So do companies like American Express, Wyeth pharmaceuticals and 7-Eleven.

When the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, there will be about five lobbyists for every delegate and senator walking the halls of the Patrick Henry Building, this year’s temporary capitol — 673 lobbyists for 140 legislators.

“That’s individuals, not total number of registrations that have come in,” said Chris Frink, who’s in charge of registering lobbyists with the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Of course, there are a lot more than 673 interests lobbying the General Assembly at any given time. A number of lobbyists working in Richmond have more than one client.

“Some have only one client, some have as many as 15 or 20,” Frink said.

But gifts to legislators are much more closely controlled at the state level than the federal level. And the gifts aren’t nearly as spiffy, either.

Gifts have to be reported twice — once by the lobbyist or group that gave them, and again by the legislator in a report filed with the clerk of both chambers. The threshold for filing is $25 for outright gifts, $50 for gifts given in the form of entertainment.

Virginia’s regulations are better than average for states — the 16th strongest, tied with Alaska. Washington state was ranked as having the toughest laws, Pennsylvania with the most lax.

In 2004, the most recent year for which information was immediately available, three of the five biggest gift givers were state government — the House of Delegates, the Senate and the state itself, mostly in the form of travel to conferences and meetings.

Combined, the House and Senate gave about $71,000. The commonwealth picked up the tab for some $20,000 in travel for Gov. Mark R. Warner, most of which were trade or marketing trips.

Altria, the parent company of Kraft and Philip Morris tobacco laid out $25,399 in 2004. Most of that went to pay for a legislative reception and dinner, as well as NASCAR and Indy Racing League tickets for a handful of legislators.

The Virginia Sheriff’s Association paid for more than $8,000 in hunting trips for Sen. Kenneth Stole, R-Virginia Beach, out of its $20,000 in gift giving.

Unlike their federal counterparts, Virginia’s lobbying information is available to the public online. Anyone with an Internet connection can look up what lobbyist is working for what interest and how much they’re being paid at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s web site.

The legislature convenes today.


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Sunday, January 01, 2006

In Memoriam: The iBook of Doom

The iBook of Doom, longtime backbone of the Northern Virginia Daily's political staff, died New Year's Eve at his home in Strasburg, of complications from acute logic board failure. He was 4 years old.

Born in Cupertino, Calif., to the G3 family, iBook was one of many children, a large number of whom tragically inherited the chipset flaw that claimed his life last week.

iBook began his working life on a note of failure. After applying to IBM for a job as system mainframe in 1965, he received a stinging rejection letter, in which corporate recruiters said he had "neither the size nor the processing power to carry off such a role." It was a rebuke he would remember for the rest of his life.

Stung by his failure in the computing arena, iBook turned his energies to politics, where, after several successful stints with various Congressional and Senate offices, he signed on with the soon-to-fail campaign of Republican presidential hopeful New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The defeat forced iBook into the private sector, where he made his fortune as a subcontractor doing basic arithmetic computations for the Census Bureau in 1970.

After a successful re-vamp of his political dreams in the Nixon administration's communications shop, Watergate forced iBook into the private sector and a stint in public relations -- a career move that led the now-middle aged computer to return to his roots in Cupertino.

Signing on with Steve Jobs and company, iBook took a lower-level position with Apple, working briefly as a test bed for the revolutionary new Macintosh operating system, before moving into the advertising department. It was the iBook's fascination with George Orwell's 1984 and a the lingering sting of his initial run-in with IBM that led to the creation of the famous ad that launched the Macintosh line.

By the time of Apple's re-birth in the 1990s with the iMac line of computers, iBook had retired from the company to pursue his true love politics once more, but this time from the outside looking in.

He was hired by the Northern Virginia Daily to provide mobile newsroom services for the paper's political operations in Richmond and Washington, D.C. It was a move that took him far from his beloved California, but back to his second home in Northern Virginia.

Working initially with James Heffernan, a sudden transfer to the paper's Winchester bureau put iBook together with last collaborator, Garren Shipley. Both were later reassigned to the paper's Strasburg office in mid-2005 to begin what would be iBook's last great project: coverage of the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race.

Even after years of computing, iBook and Shipley were planning extensive coverage of the 2006 legislative session at the time of the laptop's death.

"He will be sorely missed, by myself, my colleagues and my family," Shipley said late Sunday. "The iBook of Doom may be gone, but his archived data will live forever."

Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time, but will likely be held at the Daily's Strasburg office, with interment to be held later in a dumpster behind the loading dock.

Statement of the Obvious: This is a joke, and a poor, inside joke at that. It did not actually appear in any publication.


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