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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 01/14/2011

Key Democrat says he's likely to vote for McDonnell road bonds

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Rosalind S. Helderman

The Democratic chairman of the Senate's Finance Committee said Friday that he is "probably going to support" a proposal by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to spend $2.9 billion in borrowed funds on state roads over the next three years.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) had already said he was persuaded during meetings with rating agencies in New York last week that McDonnell's plan would not endanger Virginia's valued AAA bond rating, as some of members of his party had alleged.

On Friday, he expanded those comments to say that he thinks he will likely vote for the package.

"I'm probably going to support the bonds," he said. "I'm going to support that."

He said he will be examining the bill over the weekend to see if he could, in fact, agree to become a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Support from the powerful appropriator could be key for McDonnell, particularly because other Democrats have been charging that the governor's plan represents reckless, unsupported borrowing.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (Henry) said in the Democrats' official response to McDonnell's State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday that his plan showed he had "not gotten the point" of the last election about deficit spending.

Colgan said, however, that he had some concerns about a new proposal advanced by McDonnell Friday morning to devote a portion of sales tax revenues generated in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to transportation.

He said the .25 percent proposed by McDonnell is fairly minimal and doesn't trouble him deeply. But he said it would generate so little for roads it may not be worth doing.

"If I were him, I wouldn't do it--I don't think it will do much good," he said. "I think this bill has to be looked at as a starting point."

Other Democrats immediately decried the governor's proposal to siphon dollars out of other government services for roads.

"We're not taking money out of the general fund," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "What are they thinking?"

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington) said she is also "not convinced" about the wisdom of the bond package.

McDonnell has proposed accelerating a $1.8 billion bond package that was already authorized by the General Assembly. The legislature had agreed to pay off those bonds by devoting a portion of taxes collected on insurance premiums.

But Whipple said the state has been collecting less from that tax than was predicted when the bonds were first approved in 2007. And she said she is not convinced they will generate enough in the future to support McDonnell's proposed acceleration.

She expressed even more concern over a plan to issue $1.1 billion in debt that would be supported by earmarking a portion of future federal highway funds for annual payments. She noted that Republicans in Congress have been pushing to reduce federal spending on construction.

"What I think is that we all need more information," she said.

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | January 14, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, Robert F. McDonnell, Rosalind Helderman, State Senate, Transportation  
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