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...

My Photo
Name:
Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Greetings from Tennessee



Yes, there's a lot going on in Richmond this week, and the iBook of Mild Peril and I are both watching closely.

Now that the NAT router has been Frankensteined on to the cable modem's T1 line, political info is just a click away.

But since I do have a camera with me on this trip, others must suffer as well.

**Above, the Shamrock, possibly the world's greatest tobacco store, newsstand, soda fountain and diner, located in the heart of downtown Johnson City. Just up the road from what was The Sophisticated Otter. Another of the better eateries in the known universe, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, seen here during a severe thunderstorm.


Full Story...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Punchin' out



It's that time of year again, when The Daily's political department packs up the car, the iBook of Mild Peril, a travel humidor and extra socks and heads south for a much needed week of sanity. Adios Press Dungeon, we're headed to the Volunteer State.

So what will this motley crew be doing on the road?

• Two high-speed inspections of the entire length of Interstate 81 in Virginia.
• Taking the pulse of the race to succeed Rep. Bill Jenkins, R-Tenn., in the 1st Congressional District while taking a long hard look at Tennessee's efforts to reform Medicaid.
• Monitoring the situation in Richmond remotely using high speed data links.
• Causing retinal damage with Half-Life 2, X-Wing Alliance.

See y'all in a week or so...


Full Story...

Potts bill would let regions have say on roads; A1

Kilgore says he's 'flattered' by Senator's proposal

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — A local legislator wants localities along Interstate 81 to have the same ability to deal with local road issues as counties and cities in Northern Virginia.

State Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr., R-Winchester, introduced legislation this week that would allow three or more cities or counties along Interstate 81 to form a regional transportation authority.

Legislators are currently deadlocked in a special session called to approve a state budget and fix the state’s ailing transit network.

The bill would let local governments go forward with important projects, even if the state didn’t have the money to build them immediately.

“A good example locally would be if Winchester and Frederick County go together on the [Va.] 37 [eastern loop] bypass,” he said.

If either Clarke, Warren or Shenandoah County were to participate, the governments could levy a 1 cent sales tax to pay for the project outright or issue bonds.

With Potts’ bill, Senate Bill 5015, there are now three regional transportation authority bills pending before the Senate. One would create an authority for Hampton Roads, while the other would expand the authority of the existing Northern Virginia authority.

Potts had few if any kind things to say about regional transportation authorities when running for governor last year.

“I believe very deeply and passionately that we have to have a statewide transportation plan,” he said. “A statewide plan … has to take precedence.”

But if the transportation ship leaves the dock without a statewide plan on board, Potts doesn’t want the Northern Shenandoah Valley left out in the cold.

“I want to protect my constituents in the eventuality that these regional packages do ultimately prevail,” he said. “I owe it to the people that I represent, that we just don’t have Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia covered in that eventuality.”

Regional authorities were the hallmark of former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore’s transportation plan, something the 2005 Republican gubernatorial candidate noted with amusement Friday.

“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Kilgore said. Now a private citizen again, Kilgore said this year’s General Assembly session has, if nothing else, vindicated his policy positions.

“My campaign was about honest reform and putting forth ideas, and a lot of those ideas made it through the General Assembly this time,” he said.

“Here through the entire campaign, that was the most reckless idea coming and going,” he said. Now, regional solutions look like they could break the budget deadlock.

“I think at the end of the day, that’s what they’ll pass,” he said.

Potts and a number of other senators are adamant that regional plans are no substitute for statewide transportation medicine.

“Any regional plans that would get out of the Senate will be predicated on us having a statewide plan,” he said. “This would be above and beyond that.”

“Above and beyond” are the key words in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and I-81 regional authorities. Regardless of what comes out of the statewide plan, it likely won’t be enough to take care of huge projects such as building a third crossing in Hampton Roads.

As late as two weeks ago, Potts was prepared to offer “trigger” amendments to both the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads plans that would keep them from taking effect until a statewide plan was in place.

Regional plans could “Balkanize” Virginia’s highway system, he said, leading to “eight-lane highways running into two-lane highways” and other incongruities.

“I still believe that,” Potts said. “That’s why I say you have to have a statewide plan, and this has to fit into a statewide plan.”

Potts readily admits that he’s not a great fan of the regional idea.

“[The idea] has incredible possibilities for mischief,” Potts said, but his plan has safeguards built in to prevent wild differences emerging from county to county.

Regional planners couldn’t go off on their own wild tangents, he said. Projects would have to fall “within the parameters of VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board.”

“That’s what mine was,” said a chuckling Kilgore. All three regional authority plans are just that, he said — local self-help, no matter what senators may say.

“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck,” he said, “it is a duck.”
R Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com


Full Story...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

All Seven Kaine Vetoes Upheld

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Governor 7, General Assembly 0.

Virginia legislators failed to override any of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s seven vetoes during the legislature’s annual veto override session on Wednesday.

The one-day meeting was the final chapter in the 2006 regular session. Legislators continue to meet in a special session to hammer out a state budget and a fix for the state’s ailing road system.

One of the more controversial override votes concerned House Bill 1106, put forward by Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

As approved, the bill would have allowed drivers to keep a loaded gun in a locked glove box or other compartment of their car and still not violate the state’s concealed weapons law.

Kaine vetoed the bill, citing concerns it would allow for more weapons to be concealed and thus be a danger to law enforcement.

“When law enforcement groups say ‘We don’t think this is going to be the right thing for our troopers and deputies and police officers who are going to be stopping people on the road,’ I take that very seriously,” he said at a press conference outside the Executive Mansion.

Drivers can carry a gun without a permit, but the weapon must be kept in the open or out of the immediate reach of occupants.

Athey argued on the House floor that his bill was a common-sense expansion of gun rights — and would keep his family and other families safe.

The bill grew out of his personal experience, he said. When the delegate and his wife, who is also his legislative aide, come to Richmond, they’re packing heat.

“There are many areas of Richmond [that] are safe,” he said. “[The Capitol and its legislators] happen to reside in one of the unsafe areas of Richmond.”

It’s also a safety issue for drivers who might be involved in accidents.

“Arguably, it would be safer [to keep a gun] in that automobile under lock and key,” he said. “[The bill] protects my children, and your children.”

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said Kaine’s opposition may be because the governor misread the bill.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said before the vote. “This is not going to affect your ability to keep guns in” the reach of a car’s occupants.

But some members of the Richmond delegation reacted strongly to Athey’s stated fears of downtown Richmond.

“I cannot listen to the argument for this bill again without standing up for my city,” said Del. Dwight C. Jones, D-Richmond.

“Richmond is not Dodge City, it is not the OK Corral,” he said, drawing some applause. “Richmond is a great city. Crime is a scourge that is universal. Crime does not just exist in the city of Richmond.”

A total of 61 delegates voted to override the veto, but the Virginia Constitution requires 66 of the 99 current members, along with two-thirds of the Senate, to force the bill to become law over Kaine’s objection.

Other vetoes sustained in the House on Wednesday would have shifted a number of appointments from the governor to the assembly.

Kaine said in his veto message that he would be willing to talk about shifting power in Capitol Square, but only as part of a deal that gives governors the chance to serve two consecutive terms.

Griffith said he had expected an amendment from Kaine — that would have tied the shift to a two-term constitutional amendment — to start the process.

“If you truly want to move to two terms, you’ve got to put this in place first,” he said.
Del. Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, expressed consternation that the legislature will continue to have no input to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The whole point of the bill was “to give this body some input into the operation of the [board], which … has been ignoring us for years,” he said.


Full Story...

Virginia Senate won't budge, members say

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Full Story...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Special Session: Veto Failure

Both House of Delegates and Senate are chugging through the reconvened session today, but so far the score is Kaine 6, House 0. Delegates have failed to override any of Kaine's six vetoes of House bills.

Senators have yet to take up the one bill Kaine vetoed.

Updates as warranted...


Full Story...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

VDOT study calls for six, eight lane I-81; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — Rail won’t get the job done. Neither will one additional lane in either direction.

In fact, officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation said at a public hearing Tuesday that Interstate 81 will have to be expanded to a total of seven or eight lanes in the Northern Shenandoah Valley in the coming decades.

The hearing at the Winchester Travelodge was part of an ongoing study of the 325-mile stretch between West Virginia and Tennessee, as transportation officials unveil what their studies show the highway needs, and residents tell officials what they want to see happen.

For the Northern Shenandoah Valley, an eight-lane expansion is the rule, rather than the exception.

From the West Virginia line to Woodstock, the highway would be doubled in size, with a small exception between Va. 37 and the U.S. 17-50-522 exit in Frederick County.

In that three-mile segment, only one additional lane would be needed in either direction. South of Woodstock, the highway would vary from six to as many as eight lanes.

That’s not a popular idea with some in the valley. Representatives of Rail Solution and other opponents of a major expansion were set up outside the meeting, handing out fliers encouraging residents to oppose the VDOT plan.

In particular, the groups oppose a truck tollway as proposed by STAR Solutions, a consortium of companies negotiating with the state to build the expansion.

But STAR was also on hand with their own fliers, telling residents that the truck tollway was just a concept — and they’ll build whatever the state and federal government tell them to build.

“This shouldn’t be about us,” said Tyler Bishop, a spokesman for the consortium

The final decision rests with the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which is likely to come to some consensus on what to build at its meeting in June.

Officials will then tackle the knotty problem of how to pay for it. One option on the table, tolls, has met with serious opposition from both conservation groups and trucking companies.

State law currently allows for tolls to be levied on trucks on the highway, but that could change with action by the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, there was standing room only in the public hearing room, as residents of all stripes took their three minutes to give their opinion of how VDOT should proceed.

Some, like Mayor Ray Ewing of Stephens City, said they wanted wholesale changes made in small sections of the highway.

Conditions around Exit 307, the town’s sole access to the highway, have become frightful. Drivers often have to sit through “five or six [traffic light] cycles” before they can get on or off the highway, Ewing said.

“It’s not uncommon to see road rage demonstrated in this short section” of road, he said. Town residents want the exit moved south and the current bridge turned into an overpass only.

That might help clear out some of the traffic jams, according to the mayor, which make downtown look more like a parking lot than a commercial district.

John Bishop, Frederick County’s transportation planner, said the Board of Supervisors wants the “eastern loop” of Va. 37 included in the project. That should help traffic around all of Frederick County, while taking cars and trucks out of the problem areas on Winchester’s eastern edge — places like Exit 313 and Exit 315.

Others took issue with the study’s conclusions that rail won’t do the job.

“In the overall address of your transportation column, rail seems to be right far back,” said Robert Clark, of Woodstock. Federal and state officials need to throw their support behind rail, he said.

“We need to address in this case the rail system and give it equal time,” he said. Building more lanes, particularly for trucks, won’t do the job.

“No matter how many lanes you put out there, they’re going to fill it up,” he said. “Maybe one lane each way, maximum, would be all the valley would be able to stand” from an environmental point of view.

“You have not done justice to the railroad alternative,” said Jim Clarke, who lives in Frederick County near Winchester.

“The task [for highway engineers] should be to control or reduce traffic volume,” he said, rather than build more lanes for more traffic.


Full Story...

Special Session: Two for the price of one

Legislators are rolling back into Richmond tonight and tomorrow for a double header on Wednesday — the veto override session of the regular session, followed 10 minutes later by another stab at doing a budget/transportation deal as part of the special session.

But there was activity in the General Assembly Building today, as the Senate Finance Committee met to take testimony from key players around the state. Find the presentations and documents in question here.

On the House side, Speaker Bill Howell let reporters know he wasn't happy with what he heard coming from the Senate and Executive Mansion.

From the Speaker's press release:

"It is disappointing that those opposed to passing a fiscally responsible, constitutionally sound, and timely budget are continuing to employ campaign-style tactics, complete with misrepresentations of our current circumstances and dire forecasts intended to engender fear," remarked Speaker Howell.

"The facts directly contradict their description of the solutions offered by the House, so we felt compelled to explain the realities of the current situation and dispel the flawed myths floating out of and around Capitol Square."

Opponents of the House plan have erroneously characterized it as being heavily laden with state-backed debt. In fact, the House budget contains slightly less debt, $339 million, than the budget as introduced by the Governor, $341 million.

This limited use of leveraged funding is consistent with the formula established through legislation sponsored by Chairman Callahan and Senator Chichester and signed into law by Governor Warner in 2002 [HB 1285 and SB 402, 2002 Session].

By responsibly incorporating debt into its financial plan, the House spending plan would complete several projects reduced or eliminated by the Senate, including a new cancer center at the University of Virginia, a new biomedical research facility at George Mason, and new or improved facilities at state parks.

"The Senate has chosen to appropriate funds for the planning of future state office buildings — including a new building for the General Assembly — that will ultimately be financed with higher taxes or increased debt burdens," commented Chairman Callahan.

"In contrast, the House has opted to take advantage of the AAA bond rating Virginia has earned and has fought so hard to maintain. Even in transportation, the $1.2 billion in funding provided by the House transportation plan for the upcoming biennium does not include a single dollar of debt. The repeated manipulation of the facts by the Governor and his representatives and by members of the other body is both frustrating and disheartening."
Meanwhile, a transportation debate of another sort is getting white hot in the Valley of Virginia. VDOT brought their vision of Interstate 81 in 2035 to Winchester on Tuesday night, and there were some in attendance none too happy with what they saw.

Look to this space later this evening for a recap of what VDOT wants and what those in attendance think about it.


Full Story...

Candidates’ money race in 10th Congressional District comes in close; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

They’re off and running. And raising funds.

With more than half a year until Election Day, the money race in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District is a relatively close affair.

Incumbent Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Vienna, finished the first quarter of the year with more than $451,000 in the bank, having raised $605,000 during the 2005-06 election cycle.

His major party challenger, Democrat Judy Feder, wrapped the reporting period with $268,000 on hand, having raised $289,000 since declaring her candidacy in January.

Libertarian Wilbur Wood of Berryville is also running, and has raised just less than $3,000.

Feder, the dean of Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a former Clinton administration official, represents the second Democratic challenge to the 13-term incumbent in as many elections.

While she doesn’t have as much money in the bank as Wolf, Feder said she’s pleased with the results so far.

“It does take a lot of money to mount a campaign, particularly in this district,” she said. Northern Virginia, together with Washington, is one of the state’s most expensive media markets. Advertising in the region was one of the major expenses in last year’s $47 million gubernatorial race.

“It is a lot of money,” she said, but people have donated for “the same reason we’ve seen changes in the elections in the district. We’ve seen the election of people like [Gov. Timothy M.] Kaine, [Del. David] Poisson, [D-Sterling] and [Sen. Mark] Herring, [D-Leesburg].”

“People want change, and I think the response I got shows that people really want a commitment” to change, she said. “The voters in the district are not happy about the people they elect not paying attention to the problems they’re facing on a daily basis.”

Neither Wolf’s campaign nor congressional office returned requests for comment on Monday.
The 10th District isn’t Virginia’s largest, but it is one of the most diverse.

From its far eastern points in McLean and Manassas, the district takes in Northern Virginia bellwether Loudoun County, along with northern Fauquier County before heading back to Front Royal, Winchester and Frederick County.

Neither candidate calls the Northern Shenandoah Valley home. Feder hails from the eastern anchor of the district, McLean.

Most of the Democrat’s money has come from individual donations — $265,000 — including a number from outside Virginia. Wolf has slightly more from individuals in campaign finance terms, $383,000, but has come up with an additional $215,000 from political action committees.

Employee groups from Microsoft, Motorola and Siemens have donated thousands to the campaign, as have the National Association of Realtors and the National Weather Service Employees PACs.

Feder doesn’t have Wolf’s PAC power behind her, but she has logged some $16,000 in donations from groups like New Leadership for America, the PAC of former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., along with Our Common Values, a PAC associated with Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a former aide to President Clinton.

All three candidates for the U.S. Senate from Virginia are also off raising money.
According to unverified reports from both campaigns, Northern Virginia businessman Harris Miller leads former Secretary of the Navy James Webb. The two will face off in a Democratic primary in June.

Miller’s campaign reports a war chest of $398,000, while Webb has somewhere around $260,000. Both men trail far behind the Republican they hope to oust, U.S. Sen. George Allen.

Allen, anticipating a challenge from former Gov. Mark R. Warner that never came, built his war chest for years. By the end of 2005, Allen had raised some $6.8 million for his Senate campaign, and had $6.2 million left in the bank.

Election Day is Nov. 7.


Full Story...

10th District race: By the Numbers

Reporter's Note: Yet another graphic from The Daily that looks much better in print than on th web. But you know this, because you bought a paper, right?

Candidates for federal office had to have their first-quarter financial filings in to the Federal Election Commission on Saturday.

In the 10th District, the monetary picture shows clearly which side has established fundraising structures and which is just starting out. All numbers are current as of March 31.

Rep. Frank Wolf, Republican
• Total raised this cycle: $604,940
• From individuals: $382,799
• From PACs and other committees: $214,775
• Total spent: $268,556
• Cash on hand: $451,766

Judy Feder, Democrat
• Total raised this cycle: $288,977
• From individuals: $264,977
• From PACs and other committees: $16,000
• Total spent: $20,603
• Cash on hand: $268,373

Wilbur Wood, Libertarian
• Total raised this cycle: $2,878
• From individuals: $1,825
• From PACs and other committees: $853
• Total spent: $82
• Cash on hand: $2,796
— Source: Federal Election Commission


Full Story...

Friday, April 14, 2006

Allen campaigns in northern valley; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — U.S. Sen. George Allen brought his re-election campaign to the Northern Shenandoah Valley on Thursday.

The Republican stopped briefly at Winchester Regional Airport to rally the GOP faithful during a two-day kickoff fly-around. Allen, a former Virginia governor, is seeking a second six-year term.

Speaking on Thomas Jefferson’s 263rd birthday, Allen described his positions as those of a “common-sense Jeffersonian conservative,” who believes in smaller government, personal freedom and lower taxes.

Some of the loudest applause from the crowd of about 100 came when Allen called for a tighter fiscal belt in Washington and a “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.”

“You have a right to fiscal accountability when folks in Washington are spending your money,” he said.

He said he also wants to see a “paycheck penalty” introduced in Washington. Legislators shouldn’t get paid their six-figure salary until they have a full federal budget in place by Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, he said.

Allen also said he would support a line-item veto amendment, which would change the U.S. Constitution to give future presidents the same power that most state governors have — the ability to strike down individual portions of a budget.

At present, federal budget bills can only be accepted as a whole or vetoed. Congress approved a line-item veto during the Clinton administration, but courts ruled it unconstitutional.

Federal spending also needs to be reined in, Allen said, by a balanced-budget amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority of Congress and the assent of 38 states. To date, Congress has been reluctant to approve the amendment.

State legislators could force Congress’s hand if 34 states petition for a constitutional convention on the matter, but that has never happened in the nation’s history.

Allen said he doesn’t support a compromise immigration reform bill that would give amnesty and a path toward citizenship to some aliens in the country illegally.

But there should be a way for those who want to work in the U.S. to do so, he added.
“We should have a legal temporary worker system, but we should not award illegal behavior with amnesty,” he said.

“Your federal government has neglected, in my opinion, to secure our borders,” he said. “We need more [Border Patrol] personnel. Actual fences, virtual fences, detention centers.”

Meanwhile, one of Allen’s two would-be November rivals took comedic aim at the senator’s trips outside the commonwealth.

“George Allen is the only Senator from Virginia who has ever kicked off his re-election campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” wrote Kristian Denny Todd, a spokeswoman for Jim Webb, in an e-mail to reporters, referring to recent out-of-state trips by Allen.

Webb, a former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, is battling Northern Virginia businessman Harris Miller for the Democratic nod to run against Allen.

Allen is frequently mentioned as a contender in 2008 for the GOP nomination to succeed President Bush, but has yet to publicly state his intentions to run.

Webb’s team made their point with an animated Web site depicting Allen’s recent jaunts, http://www.georgesjourneys.com.

“At this point, Virginia seems to be more of an afterthought for Senator Allen given his recent travels, campaign hires and overall focus,” Todd said.

Back in Winchester, Allen again declined to answer questions about his future plans. Before every run, Allen has his boots re-soled in Winchester.

When a reporter asked after Thursday’s rally if he planned on kicking up his recently refreshed footwear in the Oval Office, Allen demurred.

“I don’t think President Bush would like [that] very much,” he said.


Full Story...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

No Va. budget yet, legislators will try again: B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Two days of meetings on the state budget went nowhere, and now General Assembly members are back home, with an eye toward trying again next week.

Both houses had returned in anticipation of formalizing their budget standoff again by passing their own budgets, defeating their counterparts’ plans and asking for a conference committee.

That didn’t happen, as the Senate convened committees to consider regional road issues and failed to act on the House version of the budget.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, shook his head when asked about the lack of progress in the Senate, but the GOP majority said they’re not moving an inch in their no-tax-hikes position.

“Most people are telling them, they’re telling me, hold the line on taxes, especially with a multibillion-dollar budget surplus,” said House Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, at a spirited press conference after the body adjourned.

More than 35 members of the caucus packed into a small meeting room in the temporary capitol to express their displeasure with the Senate’s continued insistence on including tax hikes for transportation in its budget bill.

Senators included about $1 billion per year in new taxes for transportation before the regular session adjourned in March. Those hikes didn’t pass the House, though, and the chambers have been deadlocked ever since.

Republican delegates did offer a compromise plan last week — sent to the Senate on Tuesday — that sets aside $1 billion over two years for transportation and calls for further talks on how to spend it and how to pay for it.

“The good people of Virginia aren’t bargaining chips,” Howell said. “They deserve far more from their elected representatives than to be pawns in a game not of their own making.”

Down the hall in the Senate, the majority bloc was decidedly less solid. Fractures in the once-united front were obvious in two major committee meetings on regional transportation plans.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, brought forward a proposal to raise the sales tax in Northern Virginia to 5.5 percent and give the additional money to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for projects.

But the committee rolled the bill into a similar bill proposal by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, R-Vienna, that would raise a laundry list of regional taxes and fees to accomplish much of the same. Davis said she had been talking to legislators in the House about what might make it through the lower chamber, and a sales tax wasn’t on the list.

Saslaw was unmoved, insisting that his plan was the best way to spread out the regional pain of a tax hike, hitting shoppers from Maryland and Washington.

“The fact that the House doesn’t like it bothers me not one whit,” he said. But Davis said the voters have already given their opinion on a sales tax hike.

“We had a referendum on the sales tax in Northern Virginia,” she said. “It failed.”

Davis’ plan, along with a unified proposal from members of the Hampton Roads delegation, won committee approval despite objections that approving regional plans weakened the Senate’s bargaining position.

Regional plans “play right into the hands of the House of Delegates,” said Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania. If some members see regions with tools to fix their own problems, delegates will permanently walk away from any statewide transportation plan.

Sen. H. Russell Potts, Jr., R-Winchester, said before a Senate Finance Committee meeting that he would offer amendments to the bills to prevent the “Balkanization” of Virginia by making both plans inoperative unless legislators enacted a statewide plan.

But Potts never got the chance. After a delay of almost an hour, committee chairman, Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, arrived and told members that the bills would be forwarded to the committee’s transportation panel for further consideration.

That was the last straw for the House.

“I am absolutely appalled by the cavalier attitude that the little Napoleons [in the Senate] are foisting on the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean, chairman of the House Appropriations committee at the GOP press conference. “They seem hellbent on closing down the government, and I find that disgraceful.”

Legislators will return next week to continue their work immediately after their Wednesday veto override session.


Full Story...

Special Session: Recesses, bills and plans

Both House of Delegates and Senate have adjourned until this afternoon in order to give some new transportation plans a chance to go before committees. Senate Transportation goes first, followed by Senate Finance.

So far, we've seen Senate bills from Hampton Roads, the central Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. Look for details here as soon as they're printed and distributed. Delegates began their day by passing their version of the budget and sending it to the Senate.

Will the deadlock break today, or will this grind on for weeks to come? Place your bets now.

UPDATED 1 p.m.: Region, heal thyself

The Senate Transportation committee has approved and sent on to Senate Finance a regional transportation improvement plan for both Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. But there was much grousing that such plans — which sponsors say must be enacted in addition to the Senate's statewide plan — weaken the Senate's overall bargaining position vis-a-vis the House of Delegates.

Senate Finance is meeting now. It's a very interesting day in Richmond.

UPDATE 2, 3 p.m.: "Little Napoleons"

The House of Delegates has packed it in until the Reconvened Session on April 19. On their way out the door, they held a blistering press conference where they pulled no punches, and laid the blame for the situation squarely at the feet of the Senate. Del. Vince Callahan, R-McLean, went so far as to refer to the upper chamber as "the little Napoleons down the hall."

I'll post a very interesting story about the whole situation here later. Updates as events happen.


Full Story...

Bell Prosecutor is Admonished

Commonwealth’s attorney had sent letter to Bell jury

Note: This is a local story that normally wouldn't appear on this political site. But the Bell case has over the past year become inextricably linked to the state's political picture. See a note at the bottom of this post for more details.

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Iden has been admonished for sending a letter to members of the jury that sentenced convicted murderer Edward Bell to death in 2001.

Meanwhile, the judge handling what is Bell’s last major appeal before the death chamber awarded his legal team the services of an investigator to help prove that his first legal team didn’t do a good enough job.

Bell was sentenced to death in 2001 for the 1999 murder of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook. Since then, Bell has exhausted and lost all of his state appeals, along with all but one portion of his last major federal appeal — that his trial lawyers were ineffective during his sentencing.

Iden, who was elected after the Bell verdicts, received the mildest form of legal sanction for a letter sent to jurors which cautioned them to check the credentials of anyone wanting to interview them, and then call his office.

Bell’s lawyers filed a complaint with the Virginia State Bar regarding the letter in 2004, which resulted in Monday’s hearing.

“As a result of this letter, most jurors refused to cooperate with Bell’s state” appellate lawyers, his current team said in a February federal court filing.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine Baldwin — who gave Iden the very letter he sent to jurors — fired back in the commonwealth’s re-sponse at the time that Bell’s claim was “slanderous.”

“He contends, without any support whatsoever, that a letter … [Iden] sent to Bell’s jurors after direct appeal to protect them from shady practices death penalty opponents routinely engage in, caused jurors not to talk,” she wrote. The claim is just a tactic “taught in capital murder seminars” designed to sway a judge toward a new trial or sentencing.

Iden said he was surprised by the ruling, considering the letter was given to him by the office of then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. Still, he hasn’t made a decision on appealing the admonishment.

“I’m going to wait on the written opinion” before making a decision on whether or not to appeal, he said.

The office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell declined to comment. Efforts to reach members of Bell’s legal team were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones allowed Bell’s team some help in proving his first lawyers weren’t up to snuff at sentencing in a ruling released Tuesday afternoon.

“Bell’s trial court appointed a mitigation investigator … in February of 2000. [The investigator] interviewed Bell and concluded that Bell had problems with his cognitive abilities,” Jones wrote. “She alerted Bell’s trial counsel to these findings and requested the contact information for Bell’s family so that she could perform her investigation, but trial counsel did not respond and [the investigator] was thus unable to continue her services.”

“If Bell succeeds in proving that his trial counsel’s failure to pursue this investigation was deficient, the evidence uncovered by a Virginia fact investigator employed by Bell’s current habeas counsel would be relevant” to whether or not the condemned gets another sentencing.

The lawyers had requested $92,500 to pay for a number of other experts, including some to look at how Bell’s mental state might have been presented as a reason not to sentence him to death. But Jones turned those away.

Both sides will argue their case before Jones in a two-day hearing in Harrisonburg set for July.

End Note: Bell's case came to statewide prominence when then-gubernatorial candidate Kilgore ran a much-publicized television ad featuring Sgt. Timbrook's widow, Kelly, saying she didn't trust then-Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to carry out Bell's death sentence.

Kaine responded by saying he opposed the death penalty, but would uphold the law. Should Bell's current appeal fail, Kaine's power to grant clemency would be one of three possible obstacles remaining between the condemned and the death chamber.

The commonwealth is now being represented by the office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell.


Full Story...

Local Delegate's Gun Bill One of Seven Vetoed

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — A bill by a local delegate that would allow drivers to keep guns in locked automobile glove boxes was one of seven vetoed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine late Monday.

Monday was the last day for Kaine to act on the 958 bills that won approval from both the Senate and House of Delegates.

Among the proposals was House Bill 1106, sponsored by Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal. The bill cleared the House of Delegates by a veto-proof 70-24 margin. The Senate vote, though, was much closer, 23-17 in favor of the bill.

If the same groups vote the same way during next week’s veto override session, the veto will stand.

“This measure runs contrary to existing state law regarding concealed weapon permits, allowing people who have not completed a criminal background check, and who are untrained with a handgun, to possess a firearm in a concealed manner within a locked compartment in their vehicles,” Kaine says in a statement released Monday.

Concerns raised by law enforcement, that the measure would make already dangerous traffic stops even more dangerous, are valid, the governor says.

“It presents a danger to our law enforcement officers, who risk their lives for Virginians on a daily basis while patrolling the Commonwealth’s roads and highways,” he says.

Athey wasn’t available for comment on Monday, but he had a very good reason, Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, told her colleagues.

Sherwood took the floor of the House and announced “that gentleman from Warren and his wife are the parents of twins, a boy and a girl, each weighing 8 pounds-plus.”

During the session, though, Athey said that people who are likely to use a handgun for nefarious reasons are going to do so, no matter what the state’s law is.

“Someone who is going to commit a criminal act is going to commit a criminal act,” he said in a March interview. “Law-abiding citizens are not.”

Letting otherwise law-abiding people keep guns in their car is a safety issue, he said. People should be able to defend themselves on the road, just as they can in their homes. And drivers can already openly carry weapons in their cars.

“My wife is not someone who’s a gun aficionado. She has no interest in getting a concealed weapons permit,” he said at the time. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense” for the law to encourage people to “leave a loaded gun in an open car with children in there.”

Kaine also followed through on threats to veto legislation that transferred some gubernatorial appointment power from the Executive Mansion to the General Assembly.

In particular, he vetoed Senate Bill 304 and House Bill 673, identical measures which would have made regional appointments to the Commonwealth Transportation Board the purview of legislators.

At present, the governor appoints all 17 members of the board and has the power to recall them at will.

Kaine said in a statement that he’s not about to let the executive branch lose one of its major powers without getting something in return for future governors.

“Any shift in the balance of power should occur in conjunction with a broader review of issues including the merits of a two-term governor,” he says.

The House and Senate both convene today at 10 a.m.


Full Story...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Raw Data: Seven Vetoes

From the office of Gov. Tim Kaine...

RICHMOND – Governor Timothy M. Kaine today announced he has vetoed seven of the 958 bills adopted by the 2006 General Assembly. Midnight was the Governor’s deadline to act on legislation. Legislators are scheduled to consider the Governor’s vetoes and proposed amendments during a one-day Reconvened Session on Wednesday, April 19, 2006.


Commonwealth Transportation Board appointments

SB 304/HB 673

Governor Kaine has vetoed legislation that would allow the General Assembly to appoint nine members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board – appointments currently made by the Governor.

"During my first three months in office, my top priority has been working in a bipartisan way to find a long-term, fiscally responsible to approach our transportation challenges, and change the way Virginia approaches these issues," Governor Kaine said. "These bills would only serve to politicize the Commonwealth’s transportation planning process at the very time we should be working together to make the tough decisions that our transportation problems require -- and that our citizens demand."

"In addition, no reason exists for the Executive branch to cede this appointment power to the Legislative branch at this point. Any shift in the balance of power should occur in conjunction with a broader review of issues including the merits of a two-term governor," Governor Kaine said.

Tobacco Settlement Foundation appointment

HB 1545

The Governor has vetoed legislation that would change the power to appoint the director of the Tobacco Settlement Foundation from the Governor to the Board of Trustees of the Foundation.

"Some believe that allowing the governor to appoint the director threatens the Foundation’s continuity of operations,” Governor Kaine said. “Because the current director has served under the two previous governors and was then reappointed at the beginning of my administration, this argument is not compelling."

The Governor also said such a proposed shift in the power of gubernatorial appointments should occur in the context of a review of issues including the merits of a two-term governor.

Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission appointment

HB 706

The Governor also vetoed a bill that would change the power to appoint the director of the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission from the Governor to the Commission.

"Given the crucial economic development responsibilities of the Commission, it is imperative that the Governor have the ability to appoint a professional who will work as part of the entire team of state officials who strive to promote business development and entrepreneurship, especially in Southside and Southwest Virginia," Governor Kaine said.

The Governor also said such a proposed shift in the power of gubernatorial appointments should occur in the context of a broader review of issues including the merits of a two-term governor.

Graduation Prayer

HB 493

This legislation would require the Virginia Board of Education to address high school graduation ceremonies in its guidelines for constitutional compliance for student prayer.

"Because the Board, with the assistance of the Attorney General’s office, has already developed the guidelines that are requested to be developed in this bill, I veto the bill," Governor Kaine said. "This bill is unnecessary, as the Board’s guidelines already address this issue in a comprehensive manner."

Concealed weapons

HB 1106

The Governor also has vetoed a proposal that would allow individuals without concealed weapon permits to store firearms in locked compartments in their vehicles.

"This measure runs contrary to existing state law regarding concealed weapon permits, allowing people who have not completed a criminal background check, and who are untrained with a handgun, to possess a firearm in a concealed manner within a locked compartment in their vehicles," Governor Kaine said.

“The objections of law enforcement to this measure are compelling," the Governor added. “It presents a danger to our law enforcement officers, who risk their lives for Virginians on a daily basis while patrolling the Commonwealth’s roads and highways."


Representation on Committee on Standards

HB 1178

The Governor has rejected legislation to eliminate a requirement that a member of the minority party be appointed to any three-member Committee on Standards that may be established by the Senate or House of Delegates.



"No matter the party in power, maintaining high ethical standards is a bipartisan goal," Governor Kaine said. "Depriving a committee charged with ethical oversight of its bipartisan representation would subvert the whole purpose of its existence."


# # #


Full Story...

Delegates meeting, may vote on budget; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

After two weeks of low-level skirmishing, the fight between the House of Delegates and Senate is showing signs of life again.

Delegates are coming back to Richmond today for an evening session, at which they’re expected to vote on their version of the $74 billion 2006-08 state budget and dispose of the Senate’s latest offering. Senators will join the fray on Wednesday.

The two sides, both led by Republicans, remain at odds over transportation spending. Senators back a budget that contains about $1 billion per year in new taxes devoted to transportation fixes.

Delegates remain adamantly opposed to new taxes, but have offered to set aside $1 billion in the new state budget for roads and mass transit, and to fight about the details later.

Some senators, including Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, have rejected the plan as irresponsible, saying it relies on debt financing of big projects like a new hospital and some higher-education buildings to pay for the $1 billion. They also say they want to see recurring money, not just one-time spending.

Delegates, including Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, counter that the House just wants to move the budget itself forward and fight over transportation later. May said the current House offer doesn’t even preclude new taxes.

The action is due to start late today, when the House takes up the Senate’s latest offering — which includes a 6 cents per gallon motor fuel distribution tax and the new budget — in the House’s version of the 2004-06 “caboose bill.”

Such bills are approved every two years and are designed to tie up loose ends in the state’s current budget, which expires on June 30.

But the modified caboose bill may well die a swift death in the House.

Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, said in a recent interview that the bill has a significant hurdle to clear before it comes up for a vote. If the Senate’s changes to the bill are found to be too far afield from the original, it might never be discussed.

Sherwood wouldn’t say for certain that it would be found to be non-germane and thus unable to be considered. “That’s up to the speaker,” she said.

But the test is simple, she said: does the new bill go beyond the scope of what the old one did?
Republican delegates have come under fire from some quarters lately for not being in Richmond while the legislature is in session. The full House last met on March 27.

GOP leaders have said their caucus decided to leave town until budget negotiators reached some kind of breakthrough.

Calls from some pundits for legislators to return their $130 per day expense checks are misguided, Sherwood said. Legislators aren’t getting paid at all unless the chamber or one of their committees is in session. All but a handful of staffers, imported from permanent home office staff, are off the job for the special session as well.

“We drive down to Richmond … when there is work to be done,” Sherwood said. “There’s no sense in sitting there, particularly there at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Just what would happen if the two chambers don’t come to terms on a budget and have it passed into law in time isn’t clear. Virginia’s constitution makes it clear that the state can’t spend money without having an appropriations act in place, but the state has never been without a budget at the end of a fiscal year.

Two others states — Minnesota in 2005, Tennessee in 2002 — have closed up shop over budget fights. Both sent thousands of state employees home for days, but managed to keep essential employees like prison guards and police on the job in the interim.

That might not be so easy in Virginia, Attorney General Bob McDonnell said Monday, referring to the views of former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.

When the 2004 budget fight went into overtime, Kilgore warned legislators about the consequences of reaching July without a budget.

“It was his opinion that the government cannot in fact continue to operate without this budget being passed,” he said. “We haven’t been asked [for] that opinion again, but I think it is a good and solid opinion. I think all the legislators … know that they’ve got to get the job done and signed” before July 1.


Full Story...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Federal ‘Combat Meth Act’ will further restrict cold medicine; A1

New law will require even pediatric drugs to be kept off shelves

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Even tighter restrictions on cold medicine are on the way to the nation’s drugstores, courtesy of the renewed USA Patriot Act.

The first round of new federal anti-methamphetamine measures takes effect on Saturday, placing limits on how much pseudoephedrine-containing medicines consumers can buy nationwide.

By the time the law is in full effect at the end of September, all products containing the drug will be either locked up or behind pharmacy counters. Purchasers will have to show a photo ID and sign a logbook to buy more than 60 milligrams at a time.

The new law, known as the Combat Meth Act, is a badly needed tool to curtail the spread of methamphetamine, also known as “ice” or simply “meth,” according to a Northern Shenandoah Valley congressman.

“It’s a very different type of drug problem. Meth is one of the most addictive drugs there is,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th. “The fact that it can be manufactured in home labs makes it much harder to stop.”

Some of the new law’s requirements are similar to Virginia’s existing rules and newly passed bills awaiting Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s signature.

But the new law goes much further in controlling what medications cannot be sold without a photo ID. Unlike Virginia’s law, the federal act puts everything with pseudoephedrine behind the counter.

Virginia and other states allowed liquid forms of the drug to be sold alongside other over-the-counter drugs. Pediatric drugs, exempt under a number of state laws, must also be out of reach under the new federal act.

The problem is so bad and so widespread that it had to be tackled by the feds, Goodlatte said. Meth doesn’t stop at state lines.

Interstate 81 has become a major transport artery for the drug, he said. “That’s one reason the Shenandoah Valley is so badly hit with that problem.”

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell thinks Combat Meth is a welcome addition to the state’s anti-meth arsenal, according to spokesman Tucker Martin.

“The attorney general believes that changes in Virginia, and federal, law will significantly address the problem of methamphetamine production,” he said.

Pharmacies across the country are already making changes. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores on Thursday published a 72-page list of brand-name drugs that will no longer be permitted on customer-accessible shelves, along with how much can be sold.

Some Virginia lawmakers have expressed concern that such laws will make it more difficult for rural residents to get the medicines they need. Rural access was one sticking point as new laws worked their way through the General Assembly this year.

Those concerns are unfounded, according to Goodlatte.

“Nobody is going to be denied access to a drug that is needed,” he said. “[The ID and other requirements do] not make it harder in any way shape or form.”

Goodlatte conceded that some products will be harder to get, particularly in rural areas at odd hours.

“I understand that, but I think that people would understand, given the unbelievably serious nature of what happens to people’s lives when they’re exposed to [methamphetamine],” he said.

But what were methamphetamine rules doing in an anti-terrorism bill? Moving forward, according to Goodlatte and the region’s other congressman, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th.

When the controversial Patriot Act, the nation’s best known anti-terror law, was up for renewal earlier this year, the Combat Meth Act was inserted into a conference report at the last minute. President Bush’s signature on the renewed Patriot Act also made Combat Meth the law of the land.

When questioned about the connection between the two bills, a White House spokesman referred reporters to previous comments by Bush speaking in support of both bills. The comments did not address how the two were linked.

Combat Meth doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism, said Goodlatte, but it was important to get the bill through Congress, and the Patriot Act was one legislative bus headed in the right direction.

“It was a train that was moving,” added Wolf, who said time was of the essence. States that had enacted laws have seen a dramatic drop in meth lab seizures, and legislatures in some states that haven’t might not meet again for months, he said.

But would the meth law have passed without the terrorism law?

“I think it would have, eventually,” Goodlatte said. But “you have a longer process in the U.S. Senate.”


Full Story...

Psuedoephederine laws on the books

With only a handful of exceptions, the new federal laws dealing with methamphetamine precursor drugs are the strictest in the nation.
The following are the laws on the books in the Old Dominion and surrounding jurisdictions:

• Virginia — Currently under an emergency order that keeps single-entity drugs behind a counter, sales limits, ID and logbook provisions also enforced. Gel caps, liquids and pediatric drugs exempt. Legislation making the rules permanent are now pending before Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
• West Virginia — Single-entity drugs must be kept behind the counter, with an exception for pediatric formulations. Purchase limits, photo ID and a logbook are also required.

• North Carolina — Single-entity drugs must be kept behind a counter, sold only in certain quantities to purchasers with a photo ID and who sign a logbook.
Liquid, pediatric and combination formulations are exempted, but may not be sold to those under age 18.
• Tennessee — Any drugs containing pseudoephedrine can only be sold from a licensed pharmacy to a purchaser showing ID and signing a logbook. Gel caps and liquids are exempted from the law. Possession of more than 20 grams of any precursor drugs at any time is considered prima facie evidence of an intent to manufacture methamphetamine.
• Maryland — No current laws, two bills to restrict the sale of precursor drugs were killed by the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee earlier this year.
• District of Columbia — No laws on the books or legislation pending.
— Sources: National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Maryland General Assembly, D.C. City Council


Full Story...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In other news...

Regular readers probably notice shameless pitches to get people to subscribe to the print edition of The Daily every so often. But they're really not self serving. Some of us just want more people to see stories like this from today:

Accused parrot thief is indicted; B1
- Meanwhile, Tiki the bird learns to say ‘lock ’em up’

The Northern Shenandoah Valley is a very interesting place to live. You can't make this stuff up.


Full Story...

Delegates describe different deadlock this year; B1

UPDATE: Welcome Commonwealth Conservative readers! We hope you enjoy your visit. Feel free to hang around and peruse the whole site.

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

In 2004, a Republican split allowed a Democratic governor to win a $1.5 billion tax increase.

In 2006, the General Assembly is again deadlocked, with Republicans once more fighting Republicans over taxes. But one of the GOP delegates who jumped ship last time says 2006 isn’t 2004 by a long shot, and he has no intention of doing so this time.

“We’re hanging together,” said Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, speaking of the House Republican majority. “This is a far different situation [than it was] in 2004.”

May was one of 17 Republican delegates who voted with Democrats in 2004 to enact the tax increase package. The big difference this time is the state’s bottom line, which is looking pretty good at the moment.

Since the vote in 2004, the state’s coffers have seen more than $860 million in surpluses, with more projected to be on the books by the end of this fiscal year.

Nobody questions that gridlock is a major problem in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, May said. But fixing transportation isn’t the same as running short on money for core services.

“We’re not in a disaster scenario this time,” May said. “In 2004, we were. Education, law enforcement and other high-priority programs would have been hit without the tax hikes two years ago.”

“Those were legitimate cuts,” he said. “Without what we did in 2004, there would have been every reason to say ‘Yup, you cut core services.’ That’s not true this time.”

That hasn’t stopped Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine from trying to re-create the 2004 split. Kaine’s Moving Virginia Forward Political Action Committee has been rallying supporters to pressure delegates to see things his — and the Senate’s — way.

“Why hasn’t the General Assembly produced a budget?” Kaine wrote in a mass e-mail to supporters on Monday. “The Virginia Senate and I agree — as do many members of the House of Delegates — that we need a new, dedicated, long-term source of revenue for our transportation system.”

“The House of Delegates’ leadership would rather take money from schools, public safety and the environment for a band aid solution that doesn’t fully address our transportation needs,” he wrote. May and other delegates fervently dispute that charge.

The PAC’s Web site has been converted into an outreach machine, with instant letters to delegates, newspaper editors and phone numbers all just a few clicks away.

Kaine and others have produced radio, print and Internet ads targeted at getting commuters on the phone with their delegates in Richmond, asking what they have missed because they’ve been stuck in traffic.

Two Northern Virginia Republicans who voted in favor of the tax increase in 2004 have been replaced by Democrats, as has a third who didn’t cast a key vote for or against the hike.

The recent death of longtime Del. Harry Parrish, R-Manassas, also changes the playing field.

With only 99 seats filled in the House, the number of votes required to pass an appropriations bill drops from 51 to 50. A special election to fill the seat has not yet been called.

Geography still comes up short of giving Kaine a holdover majority from 2004. Only six of the remaining members of the 2004 GOP breakaway live in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the two areas most choked by traffic.

The remaining eight GOP delegates who supported the tax increase two years ago live outside the state’s traffic hot spots — leaving 50 Republicans who either don’t live inside the gridlock zone or didn’t support the 2004 hike.

And those 50 aren’t going anywhere, said Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester. While she voted against the 2004 hikes, in 2006 she agrees with May.

“I wouldn’t describe it as being the same” as 2004, she said. “[The GOP majority is] solid. The last time we weren’t seeing a surplus. This time we are. We’re just coming off a large tax increase.”

The entire General Assembly will reconvene on Monday.


Full Story...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Raw Data: Jim Dillard's replacement

Background: Fomer Del. Jim Dillard was one of two gubernatorial appointments rejected by the House of Delegates during the regular session.

From Gov. Tim Kaine's office...

GOVERNOR KAINE ANNOUNCES APPOINTMENT TO THE COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY BOARD OF VISITORS

RICHMOND – Governor Timothy M. Kaine today announced the appointment of the Honorable John Charles Thomas to the College of William and Mary Board of Visitors. Thomas, a native of Norfolk, will serve the unexpired term of former Delegate Jim Dillard, which ends in June 2009.

Justice Thomas was the first African-American, as well as the youngest person, ever appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia when he was selected in 1983. During his seven year tenure, he wrote almost 200 decisions involving trusts and estates, contracts, torts and real property, and is associated with several thousand appellate rulings.

Thomas is a 1972 graduate of the University of Virginia, and graduated from the University’s law school in 1975.

“Justice Thomas’ personal story, from public housing in Norfolk to the Commonwealth’s highest court of law, is a compelling one,” Governor Kaine said. “His commitment to diversity, opportunity for all, and excellence – from himself and others – is inspiring to all of us. I look forward to many years of valued service from Justice Thomas on the William and Mary Board.”

Thomas currently is a partner at Hunton & Williams, LLP, where he focuses on appellate practice, general litigation, and alternative dispute resolution.

# # #


Full Story...

Raw Data: Senate Rebuttal

From the Senate Republican Leadership Trust this morning...

House Transportation Plan - Fact Check

April 3, 2006

The House transportation and budget plan described in this morning's briefing sounded remarkable. It devotes $1 billion in new money to transportation over the next two years without raising taxes while spending about the same as the Senate budget in other areas.

How do they do it? The answer falls into three parts:

1. Actually spend less in some areas
2. Raise fees
3. Borrow to make up the rest

Spend less
There can be a meaningful policy debate over what spending items are needed, necessary and vital or not. However, there is no getting around the fact that the House budget spends significantly less than the introduced budget or the Senate budget in a number of areas over the next two years. To pretend otherwise is foolish. They include:

* $63 million less for K-12 education
* $62 million less for colleges and universities
* $48 million less for teacher salaries
* $45 million less for state worker salaries and benefits
* $43 less in required deposits to the Rainy Day Fund
* $30 million less for school construction
* $35 million less for water quality improvement, eliminating the Southern Rivers program
* $22 million less for public safety
* $22 million less for economic development
* $11 million less for courts, public defenders, clerks, etc

And this is only a partial list.

Higher Fees
The House budget depends on over a half billion dollars on increased driver fines and fees, $590.2 million to be exact, over the next four years. The Senate expects less than half that amount.

There are serious misgivings over whether that massive amount will ever materialize. Will low income and youthful drivers be able to comply? And can fees be imposed on actions made before a law is passed? We'll see.

Go into debt for the rest
If looking at just a press release from the House, the only future debt-related items you see are the Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia revolving loan funds. To discover how the House spends almost as much as the Senate yet still has $1 billion to put into transportation, you have to find the debt imbedded in the budget.

By borrowing on these construction projects rather than spending funds available from the surplus, the House budget frees up General Funds to finance their short-term transportation plan:

* $259 million on college and university buildings
* $83 million for mental health facilities
* $64 million for the forensics lab
* $62 million for prison facilities
* $62 million for the School for the Deaf and Blind
* $21 million for state parks

Are there similarities? Sure. Both plans anticipate spending over $300 million from General Fund surpluses over the four years. However, the Senate plan does not rely upon debt and provdes for a long-range solution, not a short term fix.

Scott Leake
Executive Director


Full Story...

A note on 'Raw Data' posts

From the news R&D department...

You've probably seen a few posts here with the 'Raw Data' tag in the headline. That probably bears some explanation. With the addition of bloggers to a number of political press release distribution lists, information once confined to newsrooms is moving out to a wider audience.

'Raw Data' aims to make that audience wider. As with our new ability to post audio clips and documents, 'Raw Data' is one way to let the rest of the world see more of what's going on as a story moves from event to print.

When you see 'Raw Data,' you'll know that this information is being presented as it came straight from the source — the font might get changed and the e-mail headers removed, but you're seeing what landed on our electronic doorstep. They'll be linked to originals when possible. You'll see what we see.

That's not to say you'll see every press release that lands in the political inbox. The average media outlet gets 9 billion (give or take) press releases and statements every day, so we've got to do some sifting. But the ones that have important connections to developing stories from Richmond and Washington — and will help widen our readers' window into events — will get the "Raw Data" treatment.

Got a press release? Send it here.


Full Story...

‘Interim’ budget proposal may get ball rolling in Richmond; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The House of Delegates offered a truce of sorts Monday in the ongoing Virginia state budget standoff, but some key senators were less than impressed by the effort.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 22-0 on Monday to move forward a budget that sets aside a $1.03 billion, two-year “Transportation Reserve Fund” paid for out of the general fund.

Delegates say they’re willing to pass a budget that includes the money, then come back later and talk about how to spend it — or come up with alternative sources.

That’s the best way to move the debate about transportation forward, said Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg.

“I think [separating transportation from the budget] is an eminently reasonable approach to the problem,” he said. Essentially, delegates have said “‘Here’s an intermediate budget, one that will perfectly well work until everyone decides what we want to do about transportation.’”

Agreeing to the “interim” budget would let talks about transportation go ahead without penalizing local governments who are working on their own spending plans and need to know what’s coming down from Richmond.

"We’re in pretty good agreement on almost everything but transportation," he said. “If we’re pretty close on the rest of them, it would allow local governments to go ahead and make the decisions that they have to make.”

Once the budget is off the table, the House is willing to come back and talk about transportation — not that $1 billion over two years is chump change.

“The details aren’t there, but we’re setting aside the money,” added Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, also a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Everybody agrees that we need to do something good and permanent,” May added. “This puts everything on a viable basis until we can get a more permanent answer.”

One member of the Senate Finance Committee was less than impressed.

“It’s so irresponsible it’s unbelievable,” said Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, speaking from Indianapolis. “We’re talking about half a billion in debt alone.”

House legislators free up money for transportation by moving large capital projects for higher education, mental health, law enforcement and state parks to bonded debt, rather than paying cash for them.

“We battled tenaciously to keep our ‘AAA’ bond rating, and they want to go back out and add half a billion in debt,” said Potts, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

It’s more of the same, added fellow Finance Committee member Sen. Frederick M. Quayle, R-Chesapeake, with Potts at the NCAA Tournament.

The House is “still taking the cash that the Senate had put into capital projects out of them,” Quayle said.

“The bottom line, this is just a recycled plan,” Potts said. “It’s basically the same plan that does not address long-term, sustainable funding for transportation.”

Even worse, the plan opens the door for major transit projects but takes away the funding after two years., he said. That’s a recipe for killing projects mid-build.

“It’d be the worst form of irresponsibility,” Potts said, adding that it cuts more than $120 million from education to make room for transportation funding.

“There’s no way that I could support a plan like that,” he said.

May bristled at the charge.

“That’s just not true,” he said. “In all three of the plans, [House, Senate and governor] … all have increased funding for all those areas.”

“It’s just that the House isn’t quite as generous as the Senate version,” May said. “The governor’s is pretty close. It’s not a matter that we’re taking money out, it’s just that we’re not putting as much additional in.”

May drew a business analogy.

“If my employees wanted [a] 10 percent [raise] and I gave them 4 [percent], that’s not a cut,” he said.

But Quayle didn’t close the door on an “interim” budget with further transportation talks.

“I would be interested in what they have in mind,” he said.

Both House and Senate will meet again in full session Monday.


Full Story...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Raw Data: House Offers Deal

From Speaker Bill Howell's office:

House Appropriations Committee to Pass
Compromise Budget Proposal

-- Compromise Plan Offered to Senate Two Weeks Ago to be Endorsed by Committee --
-- Latest House Proposal Would Create Transportation Reserve Fund to End Impasse --

RICHMOND, VA, April 3, 2006 – House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) today announced that the House Appropriations Committee would approve a new budget proposal to break the current impasse over taxes and transportation spending.

Howell was flanked at the news conference by Delegate R. Steven "Steve" Landes (R-Augusta), Chairman of the House Majority Caucus as well as Delegates Vincent F. Callahan, Jr. (R-Fairfax), Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), M. Kirkland "Kirk" Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who are among those entrusted with negotiating with their Senate counterparts to forge a new state budget agreement.

“Now almost two weeks ago, our conferees recommended yet another prudent and practical option,” remarked Speaker Howell. “Our proposal at that time was to separate transportation increases from the rest of the budget and to focus on advancing a spending plan that would benefit all Virginians. Members of both sides acknowledge that a resolution on a budget outside of transportation could be accomplished quickly, in a matter of days.”

The House proposal, formerly offered to the Senate conferees by their counterparts from the House on March 22, would have both sides finding agreement on all areas of the budget except transportation.

For funding related to transportation, agreement would be reached on all areas where both bodies concur – such as the utilization of abuser fees for funding. All remaining moneys that were not allocated would be set aside in a special “Transportation Reserve Fund.” That reserve fund, as well as any additional revenues that might be approved by both bodies, would be dealt with by the General Assembly in a special session.

If accepted, the House proposal would allow local governments to properly plan for the remainder of the year, as a budget would be approved promptly and all funding other than transportation increases would be firmly established.

“While I have outlined the course of action that the House is pursuing, the House Majority leadership and all House conferees remain open to consider any sound, coherent and workable alternative as negotiations continue,” Speaker Howell concluded. “I am pleased with the resolve and determination of our caucus and of our conferees to fulfill our obligation to the people of the Commonwealth and deliver to them a sound budget. Hopefully, that commitment to answering the call to duty will soon be matched by our colleagues.”

Additional details about the House’s “Transportation Reserve Fund” proposal are detailed on a separate handout.
# # #


Full Story...

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Budget version has more than transportation plan ; B1

Senate now includes changes to tax credits, fees for abusive drivers

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

The fourth version of the Virginia Senate’s budget and transportation plan has something in it for almost everyone. But the House of Delegates still isn’t buying it.

The proposal — welded on to House Bill 5001 as it came through the upper chamber — passed 38-0 on Wednesday after hours of wrangling over how much ground to give towards the lower chamber in the ongoing budget standoff.

Regardless of the Senate’s action, the House will only be meeting in a “pro-forma” session on Monday. Only a handful of delegates will be on hand to go through the constitutionally required form of calling the session to order and adjourning it.

House leaders have said they have no interest in bringing all of the delegates back to Richmond until a final deal is reached by budget negotiators.

This time, though, the Senate version has more than just a transportation plan on board.
Changes to the estate tax and conservation tax credits are just some of the unfinished business from the regular session added by the Senate Finance Committee.

The House and Senate previously deadlocked on changes to tax credit program, which gives income tax credits to landowners who preserve rather than develop their acreage.

Delegates wanted to see the program expanded, while the Senate pressed for limits on the size of donations and the overall size of the program.

“We like the program” as it stands, said John Eckman, executive director of the Valley Conservation Council. “If we have to see reform, we’d prefer to see a cap on individual donations, rather than a cap on the [total] program.”

But changes should be talked about on their own merits, he said, and including any changes in the ongoing standoff over transportation muddies the water.

The transportation section of the bill has a lot in common with previous incarnations, including an $843 million, four-year increase in the grantors tax to fund local transportation projects and $369 million taken from the general fund, spread over two years.

Gone is the oft-derided 5 percent, refundable gasoline sales tax.

“I know you were all enamored with [the refund proposal], but we just felt the need to remove that,” said Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday.

In its place is a 6-cents-per-gallon tax on fuel terminal operators, which would raise more than $250 million per year if enacted into law. Companies that distribute gasoline, diesel and other motor fuels inside the state would be liable for the “Baghdad tax,” as it quickly came to be known.

Calls for raising some “user fees” on transportation are justified, according to one area car dealer. But government can only go to the well so many times before it starts to do more harm than good, said Rex Morrison, sales manager at Woodstock Garage.

Morrison said money for roads has to be raised, but putting too much of the burden on drivers and car dealers could backfire in the long run.

Higher fees for registration, gas taxes, and a 25 percent increase in the sales tax on cars and trucks is bound to eat away at the bottom line, Morrison said, and that makes it harder for car dealers to support their communities.

“Somebody’s got to drink some poison somewhere,” he said.

In total, the fourth version of the Senate’s plan contains about $1 billion in new funding each year for transportation, including $2.27 billion for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s construction budget.

It also contains $843 million over four years in the form of a controversial local grantor’s tax.

Local real estate groups and home builders have said the tax would further drive up the costs of housing in Virginia and make entry-level homes that much harder to find.

Also included in the Senate’s version of House Bill 5001 are:

• Abusive driver fees, at $48 million per year, this time set aside to fund law enforcement retirement programs rather than transportation.

• Language related to the TransDominion Express Authority, charged with working out passenger rail service from Washington and Richmond to Bristol and points in between.

• The Senate version of the estate tax repeal, which exempts farms and estates valued at $10 million from the “death tax.”


Full Story...