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Posted at 6:00 PM ET, 02/25/2011

Virginia lawmakers approve hotels taxes -- except in Arlington

By Fredrick Kunkle

The Virginia General Assembly on Friday approved hotel taxes for several jurisdictions after a Northern Virginia senator backed down from an amendment whose sole purpose was to teach the GOP a lesson.

But one jurisdiction that had asked to extend its lodging tax was still left out in the cold, apparently at least in part because of what some lawmakers view as its bad manners.


County boosters are fond of talking about the Arlington Way of conducting its public affairs with good cheer. But the urban Washington suburb created more than a little ill will in the commonwealth in the past year or so with a federal lawsuit to block the public-private installation of high-speed HOT lanes on Interstates 395 and 95. In effect, the lawsuit accused state and federal transportation officials of racism, and it also sought to sue officials in their non-official capacity as individuals.

Although the county this month agreed to drop the lawsuit, hard feelings still persist.

On Tuesday, the House killed Arlington's bid to extend its lodging tax by voting down a bill that had been approved by the Senate. Earlier, the House made short work of a companion bill sponsored by Del. Robert H. Brink, letting it die in a House committee.

The bills would have allowed Arlington to continue imposing an additional 0.25 percent tax--for a total of 5.25 percent--that raises money for local tourism. An impact statement says that amounts to as much as $448,000 to $1.17 million a year through fiscal 2015. The additional tax has been around since 1991 and has been extended six times. Until now.

For a time this week, Brink thought he might be able to revive the measure when the Senate and the House hammered out a deal on an omnibus lodging tax. "I'd like to see it come back since it's all on the same issue," Brink said.

Paul Nardo, chief of staff to Speaker William J. Howell, said that it might have been possible to revive Arlington's tax bill in the conference committee., but very unlikely.

Nardo said some in the leadership were still sore over what they saw as Arlington's nasty tactics.

"They overplayed their hand," Nardo said, adding that Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) and Howell (R-Stafford) had been irritated by Arlington's lawsuit and the "petulant" correspondence from former Arlington Board chairman Jay Fisette last summer over it. Other lawmakers had been put off by the high-handed manner of Arlington County Board chairman Christopher Zimmerman.

There were procedural questions too, and so in the end Arlington's hotel tax did not enter into discussions over the omnibus hotel tax bill, which was approved Friday.

As adopted by the House, the bill sponsored by Del. Edward T. Scott (R-Madison) sought to give four jurisdictions--Accomack, Brunswick, Madison and Washington counties--the authority to impose a hotel occupancy tax of up to 3 percent on top of the 2 percent already given to any county.

When it arrived in the Senate, however, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw added an amendment to bait anti-tax Republicans. His amendment would have killed the hotel tax in 23 jurisdictions -- all of which were represented by anti-tax Republicans--and meant a loss of $300 million in local revenues.

But Saslaw relented, and the omnibus bill was adopted Friday after Saslaw agreed in conference to drop the amendment.

"We decided in conference that Delegate Scott's bill would probably be a little better off if it didn't have my little amendment," Saslaw said, acknowledging that it was intended to teach a lesson to lawmakers who routinely block local tax bills in other members' districts while endorsing other such taxes in their own.

But Saslaw also shared a story about a delegate who in the 1970s would vote, on principle, against everyone else's bills. When the time came for him to sponsor a bill needed by his locality, the House overwhelming voted against it.

"If I caused any heartburn, well, that's probably a good thing," Saslaw said.

Fisette did not immediately respond to a message left with his aide. Zimmerman's aide said he was in the office but unavailable for comment.

By Fredrick Kunkle  | February 25, 2011; 6:00 PM ET
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Mr. Kunkle grossly misrepresented both the purpose and the content of Arlington's lawsuit against the state and federal government over HOT Lanes. Arlington sued because it had no other option, once the federal government issued a CE -- essentially giving a poorly planned project a pass without requiring adequate environmental review. The County's lawsuit was intended to force that review and to compel the state and federal governments to properly study a project that could have profound negative impacts on Arlington and the region. And yes, Arlington did say that the likely negative impacts of this poorly planned project -- a project that would endanger one of the most effective HOV corridors in the nation -- would fall disproportionately on neighborhoods with large concentrations of minorities. It is astonishing that standing up for the rights of commuters, and protecting the interests of Arlington residents, could be viewed as "bad manners." Arlington's elected officials were acting in the interests of their constituents -- and of long-suffering Northern Virginian commuters. -- Mary Curtius, media relations manager, Arlington County Government.

Posted by: mcurtius | February 27, 2011 5:37 PM | Report abuse

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