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Virginia Notebook: Democrats Stuck in Neutral

Tim Craig

Shortly after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) called a special session to try to tackle transportation funding issues, the governor gave a blunt assessment of what he hoped to accomplish by advocating a tax increase even though he didn't have the support of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

"It will be very productive to either try to find a solution or make it plain to people who are standing in the way," Kaine said in an interview with The Washington Post in May. "We are going to make something happen or let the public see who is obstructing, and frankly, that is one of the reasons why Democrats have won elections in Virginia."

But 10 days into the special session on transportation -- legislators have been on vacation for six of those days -- it remains uncertain whether any solution will be found or whether the governor will score any of those political points.

The General Assembly already has killed Kaine's proposal for a $1.1.billion tax increase to pay for roads and rail. It appears unlikely that the legislature will approve new statewide money for transportation, and the issue might not be brought up again until after the 2009 governor's race.

Kaine might think that voters will pin the blame on Republicans, but there is little in this session for Democrats, either. And by pushing the issue now, before achieving a consensus among legislators on how to proceed, Kaine might have guaranteed he will leave office without fulfilling one of his major policy goals.

After last year's transportation plan unraveled through a combination of court decisions and the unpopularity of the abusive-driver fees, Kaine said he had no choice but to revive the debate. Kaine, however, had the authority to decide when and how the General Assembly would try to address the issue.

If he waited until the regularly scheduled legislative session in January, some construction projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads would be delayed by at least a year. If he called a special session in the fall, the issues of taxes and transportation would be brought to the forefront as Virginia might become a focus in the presidential race.

Kaine opted for a summer special session, but that didn't leave him much time to do the legwork needed to ensure its success.

It also resulted in havoc in the Senate: The Democrats need every one of their 21 votes in the 40-member chamber to pass a revenue bill, and they have to adjourn every time more than one Democratic senator is out of town or the GOP would take charge because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) can break a tie.

Besides showcasing Senate Democrats' tenuous grip on power, the special session has resulted in a split among various wings of the party. GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, appear unified heading into next year's governor's race.

Senate Democrats want an increase in the gas tax as well as minor increases in the sales tax and new regional taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, partially offset by a reduction in the sales tax on food. Kaine, backed by House Democrats, shied away from raising the gas tax and instead sought an increase in the sales tax on vehicle purchases.

The division has made it easier for Republicans in the House and Senate to oppose both proposals. Instead of being on the defensive, GOP legislators say they now have cover to come out against both plans, arguing to their constituents that even Democrats are opposed to raising some taxes and fees to build more roads.

"I think Tim Kaine is a good governor, but this whole special session could not have been handled worse, not only from the governor's office but from the Democratic leadership," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach). "His bill was so poor he could not even get a patron in the Senate. By the House rejecting what the Senate Democrats wouldn't even consider, it's hardly a political hammer by which to beat the Republicans."

Kaine defended his approach, saying that he was elected to lead and that the only way to a compromise is through having all 140 legislators in town at the same time.

"These guys don't talk unless they are together," Kaine said. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) probably are not going out of their way to sit down about transportation unless they are forced.

Kaine's bill is now dead, although he could decide to introduce another bill anytime before the General Assembly adjourns. Saslaw's gas tax proposal will be voted on next week on the House floor, but almost everyone expects it to fail.

If the legislature leaves town without doing anything, Democrats remain optimistic that the electorate in vote-rich Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will punish the GOP in 2009.

But as it stands, the session will be known as one in which House and Senate Democrats -- not Republicans -- have have had to cast tough votes.

With all 19 Senate Republicans unified in opposition to a statewide tax increase -- confident they have political cover because of the economic slowdown and the high price of gas --
Saslaw had to struggle to get the support of the Senate Democrats.

At least two Democrats, Ralph S. Northam of Virginia Beach and John C. Miller of Newport News, are freshmen who run the risk of being portrayed as supporters of higher taxes in generally conservax tive districts.

"Unless their districts change dramatically in redistricting ..... there are going to be some one-term senators from Hampton Roads," Stolle said.

(Steve Pazmino, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, counters that Stolle has voted for numerous tax increases during his career but still has managed to win reelection.)

In the House, the transportation issue has put only one or two Northern Virginia Republicans in a political bind, most notably Del. David B. Albo (Fairfax), who has tried to broker a compromise.

Most House Republicans have little incentive to support a statewide tax increase, especially because Kaine and Democrats have not persuaded many rural Virginians that the deficit in the road maintenance budget might affect the highways they use.

With gas prices already more than $4 a gallon, House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) has come out against Saslaw's plan to raise the gas tax by 6 cents over six years, which would cost the average family less than $50 a year.

Democrats in Northern Virginia should be more comfortable voting for Saslaw's proposal, which is aimed at hitting out-of-state motorists for the cost of using the state's roads.

But they would still be voting for higher taxes, even though they know the bill has almost no chance of passing, a difficult political decision regardless of how liberal the district is.

By Tim Craig  |  July 2, 2008; 2:31 PM ET
Categories:  Abusive Driver Fees , Election 2008/Congress , Election 2008/Local , Election 2008/President , Election 2008/U.S. Senate , Election 2009 , General Assembly 2008 , Tim Craig , Timothy M. Kaine , Transportation , Virginia Notebook , Winners and Losers  
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I don't want roads, I want Dave Albo to get me some more food stamps?

Posted by: South County | July 2, 2008 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Ward Armstrong is from Henry County, not Bath County. (Yet another sloppy post by Tim Craig.)

Posted by: James River Guy | July 2, 2008 6:59 PM | Report abuse

James River Guy: You are a correct. Ward L. Armstrong's ID label has been updated to (D-Henry) in the above posting. A correction will also be issued for the printed version of the Virginia Notebook. Thanks.

Posted by: timcraig | July 2, 2008 7:32 PM | Report abuse

I still want more food stamps so I can keep voting Democratic. What does Dave Albo have against food stamps.

Maybe he could get some of my votes if he could pass a law that says I can pay for gas with food stamps.

FYI - Del. Dave Albo is also a Republican Mr. Craig - you show a party affiliation in parenthesis for everyone except him. Although perhaps Albo wants no one know know he's a Republican any more....

Posted by: South County | July 2, 2008 11:11 PM | Report abuse

Uh, South County, Mr. Craig wrote, "...has put only one or two Northern Virginia Republicans in a political bind, most notably Del. David B. Albo (Fairfax),..." That makes is clear to those of us who actually read, and not those who look for sound bites, to understand party affiliation.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 3, 2008 8:16 AM | Report abuse

In the past, when Governor Kaine was elected, he promised he would not raise the gas tax, but it seems that Kaine lied. Kaine wants to increase taxes on fuel when he should consider stop funding or cut existing programs to fund transportation (balance the budget). I do not understand why anyone would vote for candidates that want to tax Virginians more. I am already taxed too much now. What do you think?

Posted by: Tracy | July 5, 2008 1:47 AM | Report abuse

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