Virginia Notebook: Transportation Blues
As the political establishment reels over a bad case of deja vu, lawmakers are struggling to figure out what to do in the recurring battle over how to raise more money for transportation.
The state Supreme Court's Feb. 29 decision to toss out the regional taxing authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, a cornerstone of last year's transportation deal, could soon lead to political chaos.
But as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and House and Senate leaders consider whether they can come up with a solution, a big question remains unresolved:
Has the window for addressing transportation closed?
The transportation deal, designed to raise $1.1 billion annually for highway and mass transit projects, might have been a once-in-a-decade opportunity for a bipartisan compromise in a state traditionally resistant to taxes and change.
After years of bickering, Virginia Republicans got a big scare in 2006 when James Webb (D) unseated George Allen (R) in a U.S. Senate race.
Convinced that they needed to act to avoid major losses in the 2007 state legislative races, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Ed Gillespie, the Virginia Republican Party's chairman at the time, teamed up to force House and Senate Republicans to work together on a transportation solution.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) bought into the plan and persuaded his colleagues to go along with some higher taxes and the creation of the regional transportation authorities to raise money and distribute it to local road projects.
Senate Republicans, who have long been skeptical of the motives of antitax conservatives in the House, also agreed to go along with the plan, even though it meant undercutting then-Senate President John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), who opposed the plan and has since retired.
Kaine, who had been consumed by the transportation fight during the first 18 months of his administration, amended the GOP bill and then signed it so he could move on to other issues.
But a lot has changed since, all of which suggests that neither Republicans nor Democrats have much incentive to make significant sacrifices for the sake of another deal.
In November, Democrats picked up the four Senate seats needed to regain the majority for the first time in a decade.
In Northern Virginia, the winning issue for Senate candidates was running against the regional transportation authority by advocating for a statewide solution.
"For years, we in Prince William and Fairfax have sent tax dollars to Richmond to support schools in other parts of the state," Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who defeated incumbent Republican James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr., said on his Web site in the fall. "We now have every right to expect that people in the rest of Virginia will pay taxes to greatly improve our transportation network" in Northern Virginia.
Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax), who unseated Republican Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, also derided last year's transportation deal on the campaign trail.
Senate Democrats remain confident of their position, as evidenced by the proposal from Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw to create a 3 percent tax on wholesale gasoline purchases and to increase the car titling tax by a half-cent. Both are statewide levies.
There is little reason for Senate Democrats to compromise. If they do, they run the risk of being held responsible for another quick-fix solution, such as the failed and politically unpopular abusive-driving fees.
House and Senate Republicans are understandably wary of giving in to the Senate Democrats' proposal for a statewide tax increase.
The biggest threat to most House Republicans' reelection chances next year won't come from a Democrat. With all but a few Republican delegates in safe seats, the real campaign could come in the form of a primary challenge from an antitax conservative.
Last year, conservatives defeated two incumbent GOP senators and came close to unseating a third, Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), because of the strength of the antitax message in some parts of the state.
That movement remains strong in Virginia, as evidenced by the credible challenge of Prince William Del. Robert G. Marshall to former governor James S. Gilmore III in this year's race to become the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate.
Given that dynamic, Howell might find it a lot harder this year to marshal his caucus around another tax increase to solve transportation problems, especially when people downstate perceive the problems as unique to Northern Virginia.
Howell also might realize that all three Republican delegates from Fairfax County, David B. Albo, Timothy D. Hugo and Thomas Davis Rust, could lose next year and the GOP would still have a working majority in the House.
And if a statewide tax increase were a winning issue in most parts of Virginia, why did House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) and Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), a likely candidate for governor, vote against a proposal last month to raise the gasoline tax?
With little incentive for either side to give in, someone with statewide influence might be needed to broker a deal, as McDonnell and Davis tried last year.
But who else is there to try that if Kaine, who has shown he has little sway with the General Assembly, fails to bring the two sides together?
The two other statewide leaders, Attorney General McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), are gearing up for the 2009 governor's race.
Sen. John W. Warner (R), the one statewide politician respected by both Democrats and Republicans, is retiring. Webb has shown little inclination to get involved in big Richmond-centric issues.
If a solution for transportation is not agreed upon by midsummer, it just might have to be sorted out by the voters in the governor's race.
In that election, Northern Virginia voters who want a transportation fix might once again be pitted against the rest of Virginia.
Given the results of the past several statewide elections, gamblers might want to put their money on the traffic-weary Northern Virginians.
But they probably shouldn't bet much.
March 13, 2008; 1:13 PM ET
Categories: General Assembly 2008 , Tim Craig , Timothy M. Kaine , Virginia Notebook
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